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Car Seat Headrest - "Teens of Denial" | Album Review

by Cole Kinsler (@dustetc)

Will Toledo has been making music at an unrelenting pace for the better part of the last six years. In that time, he’s self-released eleven albums under the moniker Car Seat Headrest on Bandcamp. That’s an impressive output considering most of his catalog was recorded in a dorm room, and occasionally the backseat of the family car. Toledo is yet another shining example of the skilled songwriters that have begun to emerge from bedrooms and Bandcamp to big stages and major labels. Last year saw the release of Teens Of Style in which old songs were reimagined for a compilation record on Matador Records. Teens Of Denial is Car Seat Headrest’s full length debut of new material on Matador, and his first foray into a proper recording studio. 

Toledo’s songs are dynamic and sprawling. Most tracks on Teens Of Denial run around five minutes or longer. What starts as a scrappy guitar line can (and probably will) unfold into a huge anthem. His influences appear to be wide-reaching, both lyrically and musically. Intermittent ramshackle instrumentation recalls Odelay-era Beck, and the full-tilt climaxes are reminiscent of Weezer’s best moments. “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem)” has the makings of an early Wilco song, with lazily strummed chords and prominent slide guitar. “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit in a stupid-looking jacket” he laments over the opening chords. The songwriting is consistently honest, and funny enough to actually make you laugh out loud while listening. The track finishes with a slow sing-along; “Drugs are better with friends”...”Friends are better with drugs”. Toledo has a sharp sense for witty wordplay, and this seems more apparent than ever in this full-band studio setting. 

The album follows the narrative of a fictional character/alter-ego named Joe. These are clearly personal songs, and the protagonist feels like a vehicle for sentiments from a certain time in Toledo’s life. Standout track “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a tragically beautiful song about the emptiness of college parties, and the damaging effect of reckless behavior. Toledo meditates on the futility of building yourself up against others, and in a moment of hopefulness, he proclaims “But if we learn how to live like this / Maybe we can learn how to start again.” Our protagonist is lost; he just wants to stop feeling shitty. But when you listen to his story, you feel good, you feel like there’s hope. Howling along to a line like “It doesn’t have to be like this” makes everything feel alright, at least for a little bit. Toledo reflects on bad feelings and the bullshit of life, but it is optimism that prevails in his music.

Car Seat Headrest songs are about the big, scary questions that we’re all asking ourselves. Although Toledo doesn’t claim to have the answers, you still end up feeling empowered as a listener. The record captures the all too familiar sense of emptiness and uncertainty that comes with the start of adulthood, and it will fiercely resonate with young people who are trying to figure out how to live in a world that feels like it's falling apart more everyday. Teens of Denial is a powerful source of catharsis, if only by saying what we’re all feeling; and showing us that it’s okay to feel that way.