Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

by Emmett Neidhart (Architecture), published July 27th 2016

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Car Seat Headrest’s name is rooted in the story of front man Will Toledo’s makeshift vocal booth in his car during the embryonic years of his music career. Without access to a proper recording studio, Toledo preferred the cramped isolation of an automobile for capturing his introspective lyrics to his bedroom, which was well within audible range of his parents at the time. The first dozen or so albums of Toledo’s prolific catalogue were about as “indie” as indie rock could be, but his signing to Matador records in 2015 was a rite of passage into the genre. Toledo released Teens of Style immediately afterward, combing his previous albums for favorite songs to revisit and reprise, this time with the assistance of studio grade equipment and professional mixing and mastering. This marked a deliberate slowdown in Toledo’s workflow, a decision to prioritize quality over quantity.

Not only is Car Seat Headrest attempting to push their name into the mainstream, they are tasked with creating a follow up to what is essentially a best-of compilation. The increase in ambition to create rock monuments is palpable in the infectious guitar riffs and highly personal lyrics from early on in Teens of Denial.

Toledo has admitted that Teens of Denial is a sober album, but its themes deal heavily with drugs. For a singer who obviously valued privacy early on, Toledo is not afraid to divulge to his growing cult following the unglamorous side of romanticized vices: parties, drinking in excess, DMT and psychedelics. “I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit”, he writes of a trip on “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem).” But like in “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” which exhibits the post-party lament associated with poor decision-making, the song eventually erupts into a gushing and optimistic chorus by the end, showcasing Toledo’s knack for anthemic melodies.

The album is best summed up in a line from “Cosmic Hero,” a horn-laced track in the denouement of the record: “If you really want to know yourself, it comes at the price of knowing no one else.” Toledo is closest to himself, not others, when under the influence. His life philosophies are sorted out, but having the self-familiarity of a person twice his age has come at a heavy cost. Not only is he depressed, his friends question the justification of his depression (“You have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it”), their consolation is fruitless, and his romantic feelings go unreciprocated. Despite this, Car Seat Headrest is able to produce a record of tracks that are occasionally uplifting and often relatable in their tendency to resist any censorship of the more embarrassing stories they tell. And when the lyrics border on mundane (think Courtney Barnett), the metaphor is as striking as the musical intricacies. As his most focused and cohesive work yet, Teens of Denial is a strong argument from Toledo as to why he should be on the radar of all indie-heads.

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