Car Seat Headrest – ‘Teens Of Denial’ Review

Posted: by Eli

Will Toledo is afraid of the inevitable. He’s the mastermind behind the budding indie rock project Car Seat Headrest, and throughout his first proper Matador Records release Teens of Denial (2015’s Teens of Style was mostly a compilation of re-recorded cuts from his vast, self-released catalogue), Toledo narrates his woes as a confused, ill-prepared, yet brilliantly self-aware twenty-something. 

The first chorus on the record begins with the oddly straightforward line, “You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” which is channeled through an infectious melody surrounded by crunchy guitars and pounding drums. Despite initially coming across as a bold proclamation of victory — leading the listener to believe that Toledo has already conquered his demons and is now reflecting and moving forward — that line instead serves as a sobering reminder that defeating emotional insecurity is much more difficult than a sole moment of introspection. By the next track, he’s already second-guessing himself, “I don’t have the strength/I don’t have the time/I poured myself a drink/I told myself a lie,” and then acknowledging, “If I’m being honest with myself/I haven’t been honest with myself.” It’s an accuracy that is more bitter than the drinks; leaving the front man only more room to explore more of himself.

Throughout the remainder of the record, Toledo admits through a slew of deeply confessional lyrics that he feels misguided, unprepared and at times completely incapable of becoming an independent adult. In the funk-inspired “Vincent,” he talks about living in a tourist town where people only come and stay for a few days before leaving. It’s the sort of place where people seek momentary pleasure before returning to normalcy, but Toledo is stuck there; never capable of fully escaping the saccharine surroundings. This in turn makes him feel uncomfortable and out of place. “And half the time I want to go home,” he sings, securing the anxiety-driven feeling of being unable to escape his own head as one of the record’s main themes. 

In the aptly titled, Courtney Barnett-esque slow burner “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends [But Says This Isn’t a Problem],” Toledo narrates his failed attempts to soul search through psychedelics and his inability to numb himself with alcohol. “I get to know myself every weekend and I am weak,” he sings, though he elaborates on his cyclical, guilt-driven drinking episodes later in the record. This song deals more specifically with a bad trip in which Toledo becomes enlightened to the depressing state of substance usage rather than the positive transcendence and inward revelations he was hoping for. It’s a formative point in the record’s narrative because it proves that escapism isn’t going to save Toledo from the inevitable. 

However, that doesn’t stop Toledo from trying his hardest to escape. On “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” Toledo openly sings about the shame and guilt that comes with driving drunk, and the voice of reason in his head that tells him, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” However, it seems as if Toledo has become accustomed to the sort of intoxicated decision making that would lead him to commit an act like that, as he sings, “There’s no comfort in responsibility.”

It’s within the last four tracks that the record climaxes both lyrically and sonically (seriously, Toledo is equally competent in writing savory melodies and uber-palatable instrumental sections as he is at penning incredibly witty narratives). Beginning with “Cosmic Hero,” Toledo finally begins to accept his responsibilities. He realizes that in order to change himself for the better he has to do some things that he doesn’t want to do. “If you really wanna know yourself/It will come at the price of knowing no one else,” and then later coming to one of his most profound realizations on the record, “But if you just want it to be ok/It will never be ok.” 

However, this breakthrough is only temporary. The following track, “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” is an 11-minute epic during which Toledo absolutely implodes. The track begins with a swaying, piano-laden verse about waking up restless and angry rather than rejuvenated and satisfied like he used to feel. He then smashes any sign of hopefulness (“Maybe you think/ I’ll learn from my mistake/But not this time/It’s just gonna break me) before diving into a speak-singing breakdown of intense, manic confessions. “It was an expensive mistake,” he admits angrily, though not apologetically. He then questions all of the decisions he was supposed to make for himself, unsure as to why he was qualified to do so in the first place. Starting with the mundane, then the expectations for his age group and then finally his life as a whole. Eventually, in a swirl of keys, guitars, and quick, pitter-pattering drums, he valiantly proclaims, “I give up.” 

This never-ending fear of his that he’s inevitably going to end up in “normalcy,” as just another tourist attraction in a fleeting tourist town is almost ironic by the end of this record. With such a magnificent display of well-articulated narratives and sonically gorgeous-albeit lo-fi-musicality, Toledo is pushing back that inevitable with his music. Car Seat Headrest is going to be his normalcy for the foreseeable future, which is anything but normal. 

However, the quirky closing to the record is actually the most profound lesson of them all: you can’t choose your own ending. The last track is less than a minute and a half of unmemorable acoustic guitar and a rather boring anecdote about petting a horse. The last line though, “I am a tourist attraction biking down Dog Street,” brings everything together full circle. As the track follows up three of the most high-energy, exciting, and lyrically engaging tracks of the record, the listener almost feels as if it should’ve ended with “Connect the Dots.” But it’s not up to listener. The decision has already been made and there’s nothing anyone-not even Toledo-can do about it now. This is a concept that plays off of a portion in “The Ballad…” in which Toledo sings about reading a book about death and feeling disturbed by the book’s conclusion. However, he recognizes that he can’t do anything about it because the author was dead and that’s just how the book was written. “And so though he made fun of us, he has now become one of us,” Toledo sings. We all will become one as well. It’s inevitable. 

Score: 9/10