Will Toledo (A.K.A. Car Seat Headrest) is an example of a modern phenomenon: a musician making it big through the Internet. Over the past few years, he’s garnered a devoted fan base for his lo-fi Bandcamp-released indie rock recordings, such as 2011’s “Twin Fantasy” and 2014’s “How to Leave Town.” Recently, he caught the attention of noted independent label Matador Records. With this, Will Toledo joined the ranks of previous Matador signees Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo and Belle & Sebastian.
2015’s “Teens of Style,” Toledo’s first record with Matador, was an album of old songs re-recorded using the studio provided by a label. (Given that the name “Car Seat Headrest” came from the fact that Toledo recorded many of his songs in the backseat of his car, this was quite a step forward.) The result was a promising indie rock album that boasted a more polished sound than his Bandcamp work, while still retaining a certain DIY aesthetic. Now, Car Seat Headrest has released his first proper album of newly-recorded songs, “Teens of Denial,” which, though it sonically resembles its predecessor, is wider and more coherent in scope. More than a collection of songs, “Teens of Denial” is a cohesive album – and an ambitious one at that.
It’s certainly one of the most lively albums dealing with depression we’ve heard so far this year. This is not to say that Toledo makes light of a serious subject. Rather, although he comments seriously on his own struggle with depression, anxiety and substance abuse, he has a keen sense for irony and a powerful wit. Toledo churns out killer indie rock tracks as well as more daring sonic adventures, able to render a thematically-dark song cathartic.
The sprawling, 12-minute epic “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is an example of the latter, solidifying “Teens of Denial”’s status as Toledo’s most ambitious work to date. At the emotional apex of the song, Will Toledo forgoes vocal melody in favor of a gripping spoken word interlude: “How was I supposed to remember to grab my backpack after I set it down to play basketball? / How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday / And – why not – Sunday? / How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?” These lines, which reference the captain of the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship that sunk in 2012, speak to the recurring theme of depression and substance abuse on this album.
The opening track, “Fill in the Blank,” in addition to being one of the best indie rock songs of 2016 so far, announces this theme alongside piercing guitar riffs, pulling no punches in doing so. The chorus opens with the lines, “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” By the end of the song, these lines are subverted as Toledo cries, “I’ve got a right to be depressed / I’ve given every inch I had to fight it / I have seen too much of this world yes / And it hurts it hurts it hurts.” Thanks to Toledo’s talent for songwriting – most notably his soaring vocal melodies and guitar riffs – songs that deal with heavy subject matter become self-affirming. What makes “Teens of Denial” so compelling is that it is packed with songs like “Fill in the Blank,” which make make catharsis out of struggle.
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