At over an hour and ten minutes long, Car Seat Headrest’s second Matador release Teens of Denial is nothing if not ambitious. This is perhaps most evident in what is the standout song of the album: ‘The Ballad of the Costa Concordia’. At over eleven minutes, the song starts slow and wistful, reflecting on past happiness and the sharp contrast between it and Will Toledo’s current feelings of lethargy, before breaking down into a confused, regretful series of rhetorical questions, then building to an almost victorious cry of ‘I give up’. The song then blasts into a wall-of-sound which gives way to a lighter, faster tone scored by frantic guitars, keyboards and drums but still weighed down by a general feeling of despondency, and finally, as the static fizzles out, transitions into a beautiful dreamlike coda. Although I’m well aware that outlining a song in so many words may seem excessive, this only scratches the surface, as in ‘Costa Concordia’ Toledo also reworks a Dido song, takes us back to the beginnings of the USA, and mentions the titular Italian ship which sank in 2012, comparing himself to its feckless captain – ‘It was an expensive mistake… How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?’. What’s most remarkable, then, is how deeply personal it comes across, with the futility of his actions and the inevitability of failure looming above him, stopping him from shaking his pessimism about the world.
What Will Toledo does here more than on any of his previous releases is own up to his feelings, and speak of them as frankly as possible – and with far less vocal distortion than he’s used before. His candour when talking about his mental health is disarming, from his comments about depression in ‘Vincent’ that his life story is at the back of his medicine cabinet, and that a Van Gogh painting of a despaired old man helps to explain depression, to his exploration of alcoholism on ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’, which is imbibed with the complete deflation one feels after a party, and ‘(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends…’, which he starts by saying ‘Hangovers feel good when I know it’s the last one/Then I feel so good that I have another one’, to his openness about how disappointingly mundane his only experience with psychedelic drugs was, also on ‘Drugs with Friends’ – one of two songs whose title features ‘Joe’, a sort of persona adopted by Toledo that seems to amplify his openness rather than tamper it. At their best, his lyrics resound with the sort of overpowering tragedy we’ve been captivated by since Ancient Greek theatre. In opening track ‘Fill in the Blank’, it’s made particularly palpable as Toledo switches from an outsider’s view to his own, giving us both perspectives to show he is well aware of the help people are trying to help him but he still can’t bring himself to be happy, his depression an insurmountable barrier fencing him in: ‘No one wants to cause you pain/They’re just trying to let some air in/But you hold your breath, you hold your breath, you hold it/Hold my breath, I hold my breath, I hold it’.
The musical backdrop for his honesty isn’t the sort of soft singer-songwriter fare one might expect nowadays as an accompaniment to tales of sadness, though. It’s altogether more raw and powerful, harkening back to the rough edges of the 80’s American garage rock that refuses to die out. The hypnotically repetitive guitar riffs of ‘Vincent’ place it midway between the music of Television and that of Swans, with an outburst of ‘Half the time, I’m like THIS’ – shrieking into static as Toledo screams at the top of his lungs – that would make the Pixies proud; the frantic guitar strumming of ‘Connect the Dots…’ brings the Ramones to mind whilst a low-volume bass reminiscent of Blood Sugar Sex Magik-era Red Hot Chili Peppers jumps around frenetically in the background; and ‘Destroyed By Hippie Powers’ would be right at home on Modest Mouse’s 90s albums with its sardonic outlook, heavy, skillful guitar playing and harsh vocalisations. Car Seat Headrest’s music is clearly indebted to its predecessors, but that’s not to say it’s not got its own personality. There’s something in particular about the acknowledgement of the small victories to be found in sadness that rings true and that comes across as strikingly novel – for example, in the above mentioned mantra of “I give up”, which is first sung over a mixture of major and minor chords, but when it’s chanted again at the end of ‘Costa Concordia’ is accompanied only by major chords, Toledo repeating it more and more forcefully, his voice straining to show the intensity he feels. And although it is of a fantastic production quality, Teens of Denial is still rooted in the lo-fi beginnings of Toledo’s music, bringing the distortion and compression of earlier releases to mind on some of the fuzzier songs; it still has Toledo’s trademark intertextuality, with references to musicians like William Onyeabor, Frank Sinatra and – before it was cut a week before the record’s release – the Cars; and it still combines Beach Boys-like backing harmonies with the harsher sounds of garage rock – and surprisingly effectively, too.
The one thing that I think can be faulted is the occasional immaturity of the album: Toledo sometimes slips into clichés and overstatements which can cheapen the sentiment of the words around them, as on ‘Unforgiving Girl’, on which he repeats ‘It’s an unforgiving world/But she’s not an unforgiving girl’ throughout the chorus. It’s unfortunate, as it makes him sound like the stereotype of a sad character rather than the bare-hearted man he comes across as when he’s at his most effective. Of course, the album is called Teens of Denial, so it’s bound to have a certain amount of adolescent puerility to it; it’s just a shame Toledo wasn’t slightly more selective, cutting out some of the prosaisms which are almost comically associated with moody teens. Despite this, though, Teens of Denial is a stunning album, showcasing the rawness of Toledo’s writing and the range of his musical ability. Looking back at the first half of 2016, this is shaping up to be one of the better albums from a very good few months of music.
-- Max Bastow, June 12, 2016