The genre of indie rock, especially with bands that produce their music on a shoestring budget, has been something I have always remained on the outskirts of truly loving. My problem with these smaller artists usually comes with the fact I rarely feel they have much to prove. There are so many bands that seem to just serve a niche audience on Bandcamp and do little to expand their horizons to anything greater than that. This is not say these bands are bad, or that their fans have bad taste, it has just prevented me from truly enjoying them. Occasionally these lo-fi, indie and garage rock artists will peak my attention. Recently I found myself loving Jeff Rosenstock’s latest record, as well as records from artists like Mac Demarco and Pile who I have loved seeing live. Car Seat Headrest falls into a similar category for me, as a band who did start their careers on Bandcamp and have managed to push themselves to get signed to a major label and produce one of the best reviewed albums of the year.
What makes Car Seat Headrest stand out from many of their contemporaries is lead singer/writer Will Toledo. His presence behind the mic, and in his lyrics, remind me of a young River Cuomo, just without the level of polish that Weezer usually had back in the day. Toledo makes music with real grit to it, and does not shy away from the feelings of confusion, angst and depression that many teenagers feel. This authenticity makes Teens of Denial a much more impactful listen than many other records that try to capture these same emotions when reflecting on modern youth.
These themes get established early on with the opener “Fill in the Blank,” where Toledo sings about his depression and general disgust towards society. It captures the angst and depression in a realistic way, not nearly as overblown as you would find in a typical pop-friendly punk song. The group also does not limit their sound, expanding the instrumentation on “Vincent.” The song has a more complex structure, beginning with a simple plucked sequence, slowly growing into something more dynamic. Distortion begins to overtake the heavy reverb before the group adds in horns to add a slightly funky vibe to everything.
Over the course of a few songs, Toledo puts himself in the middle of a party, putting himself in a situation surrounded by people, yet feeling like an outsider at the same time. On “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” Toledo walks us through the general annoyances of going out to a party. High admission prices, seeing someone you hate, being a little too drunk, and just wanting to be somewhere else. He delivers similar feelings on “(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends [But Says This Isn’t a Problem]” where Toledo recalls a psychedelic experience he once had. The slower track captures the lackluster memory that fails to live up to expectations in almost every way. If you have ever been in a situation like this, I am sure this is one that will connect with you. Toledo really uses this to show off his writing abilities, especially on the outro, with the repeated like “drugs are better, drugs are better with/friends are better, friends are better with/drugs are better, drugs are better with…” and so on.
The melancholic feeling experienced after a party is handled in one of the most impactful tracks “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” The idea of driving drunk is used as a metaphor for trying to move forward in life, even if you are in a bad state of mind. There also seems to be a connection between Toledo and killer whales. Killer whales are no threat to humans until they undergo extreme stress in captivity, as does Toledo, who is put in this role of a drunk driver due to his own emotions and mental condition. It is a dense song that goes down incredibly easy thanks to its catchier sound. It is probably to most mainstream this album gets, which is not saying much, but if this got traction on alternative radio that would be great.
The surprisingly dark “1937 State Park,” has some heavy instrumentation which adds to the emotion in Toledo’s particularly powerful delivery. It sees Will confronting his pain in a direct way, claiming it as his own, making this one of the most vulnerable moments on the entire album. Toledo makes references to his need to feel mature in the world and even discusses his possible suicide as there seems to be no reason, in his mind, to continue. It is an unnerving sentiment and tackles tough issues in a tasteful way.
These themes carry over to “Cosmic Hero,” as Will focuses on his depression and suicidal urges in a direct and honest way. Over the course of eight and a half minutes, the song feels like a compilation of various sounds as the sound and tempo change throughout the entire track. It is another beautiful moment on here that never gets old for a second.
The same can be said for the album’s clear centerpiece, the 11 and a half minute “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia.” The song is an extended metaphor, comparing Will’s struggle to control his life, to the failure of the Costa Concorida’s captain to keep his ship stable. The ballad is easily the greatest song on this entire project, hitting the hardest both in writing and overall execution. Toledo is a real emotive force on here, as he tries to overcome his destructive behaviors and regain control of his life. The spoken word breakdown in the center of this song adds to the pain and confusion of growing up in a way that has not been handled this well all year.
The following song starts to wrap up the record, as Toledo reflects on deciding to make music to help cope with his pain on “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)”. It has a happier tone than the songs before it, and feels like a light at the end of the tunnel of the darkness that makes up most of this record. Following this, the album closes with the short acoustic track “Joe Goes to School” which ends the record off on a pleasant note, even if it is a little open ended.
This is one of the most honest and personal records to come out this year, and was able to accomplish so much over the course of 70 minutes. It shows that Will Toledo is definitely a young star in indie rock and will undoubtedly have a successful fruitful career if he keeps it up and continues to put out material like this. With the exception of a couple lackluster songs, this album managed to impress me in every way and fans of smaller bands should support groups like Car Seat Headrest, who are certainly ahead of their peers.
Best Tracks: Fill in the Blank, Vincent, Destroyed by Hippie Powers, (Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends [But Says This Isn’t a Problem], Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, 1937 State Park, Cosmic Hero, The Ballad of Costa Concordia
Worst Track: Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)