Album Of The Week: Car Seat Headrest Teens Of Denial
“I’m so sick of: fill in the blank.” That’s the line that Will Toledo uses to open up Teens Of Denial, the first proper studio album from Car Seat Headrest, a project that’s already released 11 different non-proper albums. Toledo, still in his early twenties, has spent years cranking out jagged, thoughtful, self-aware music; he did most of that, posting it all on Bandcamp, when essentially nobody was paying attention. Things should be breaking his way now; he’s signed to Matador, and he’s moved from Leesburg, a Virginia town far enough from DC that it only barely qualifies as a suburb, to Seattle. He has a full-on band now; he’s not just cobbling music together with whichever musicians might float through his orbit. And yet, things are not breaking his way, at least not this week.
Just before Teens Of Denial was set to come out, Toledo and Matador learned that Ric Ocasek, the former Cars frontman, would rather Toledo not rework part of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” into the Teens Of Denial song “Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed.” Toledo and Matador thought they had Ocasek’s approval, but apparently they were negotiating with a publisher who didn’t have the rights to grant that permission. That means Matador had to destroy boxes full of Teens Of Denial vinyl. Toledo had to completely rework the song on the fly. The album won’t come out, at least in its physical edition, until mid-summer. (It’s still out digitally on Friday.) It’s an absolute fucking mess. And maybe, at this exact moment, dealing with this bullshit is what Toledo is sick of. Maybe that’s the answer to that particular test question.
The real crime of this whole Ocasek kerfuffle, beyond the unbelievable pain in the ass it must be for Toledo and Matador, is that “Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed” was a fucking great song. It didn’t sample the Cars song — at least, not in the way that we usually think of songs being sampled. Instead, it used that song’s guitar riff and, midway through, ambled into a muttered half-cover of the Cars’ hook. It’s like “Just What I Needed” was playing in the background in Toledo’s head and he simply found himself singing it halfway through, when he was still in the middle of exploring his own disaffection. (The new version of “Not What I Needed” is cool, but it’s not the same.) Later in the album, he does the exact same thing with Dido’s “White Flag.” Both of those moments of recognition are very cool moments — signs that Toledo is walking around on the same planet as us, with the same songs getting stuck in his head. Teens Of Denial is an uncommonly conversational album, and both of those songs are simply part of the conversation.
And maybe the most remarkable thing about Teens Of Denial is the way it keeps Toledo’s conversational self-disclosure streak intact while turning him into an effective rock-band frontman. Those Car Seat Headrest Bandcamp albums never moved me, and neither did Teens Of Style, the DIY-years best-of compilation that Matador released last year. Maybe the lyrics were there; I never got interested enough to listen that closely. Sonically, they sounded bored and vague and indistinct — all of indie rock’s greatest problems collected into one kid’s oeuvre.
Teens Of Denial, by contrast, is (to my ears, anyway) everything great about indie rock collected into one album. For one thing, it rocks. The mix is ragged and sloppy, but it’s also hard and immediate. Frenzied, in-the-red, almost Pinkerton-sounding guitar solos erupt out of nothingness every so often. Toledo is allergic to traditional song forms; when he returns to a chorus more than a couple of times, it feels almost like an accident. But he’s knows how to riff, both on the guitar and vocally, and the way he and his bandmates toss around the title on “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” like a hackeysack, it ends up working better than an actual chorus. Toledo is one of these lyricists, like Courtney Barnett or John Darnielle or Separation Sunday-era Craig Finn, who are too sharp and wide-ranging and free-associative to fit what they’re doing into conventionally structured songs. And so Teens Of Denial comes out as a sprawling concept album about what it’s like to be young and empty.
A typical line: “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys? / What happened is I killed that little fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses.” Another one: “They got a portrait by Van Gogh on the Wikipedia page for clinical depression / Well, it helps to describe it.” Another one: “Last Friday, I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend / I felt like a walking piece of shit in a stupid-looking jacket.” Those lyrics are so sharp and distinct and beautifully written, and they’re all about the state of being dull and indistinct and ugly. Teens Of Denial is about being lost and unfocused and unable to conceive of what adulthood might even be. It’s a finely observed rendering of the fuckup life, and I’d be tempted to call it a millennial masterpiece except that this is too good an album for me to sit here and throw buzzwords at it.
“You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” Toledo sings near the beginning of the album opener “Fill In The Blank.” Later, he gives up that parental P.O.V. and sings as himself: “I’ve got a right to be depressed / I’ve given every inch I had to fight it.” It’s almost a triumphant moment: Toledo claiming ownership of his own inertia, giving a grand fuck-off to the idea that he should be getting over anything. And while depression is an individual thing, there’s also a generational component to what he’s singing, to the endless wheel-spinning: “It’s the new economy, we have nothing to offer and we sleep on trash.” The album’s centerpiece is “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia,” an 11-and-a-half-minute meditation that gets its title from a giant cruise ship that sank in 2012. Most of Toledo’s lyrics in the song are about wondering how to stop fucking up, in ways big and small. He doesn’t know how to use a tube amp. He can’t keep a job. He left his backpack on the ground near the basketball court, and then he forgot to pick it up again when he was done playing. He can’t stop getting drunk. Then, a few seconds later, he’s finding a connection between himself and the captain who wrecked that ship: “How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship? / How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship? / It was an expensive mistake.”
In a way, there’s a sad poetic beauty to this album’s fate. Here, we have this powerful, cutting, incisive portrait of an entire generation that’s been economically fucked by previous generations’ greed. And it’s not coming out the way it was supposed to because a baby-boomer new wave legend decided that he doesn’t want his song associated with it. This album deserves better, just like this entire generation deserves better.
Teens Of Denial is out, in some form, 5/20 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The massive National-spearheaded triple-disc Grateful Dead tribute Day Of The Dead.
• Ariana Grande’s sparkling, precision-tooled Dangerous Woman.
• Pantha Du Prince’s architecturally gorgeous minimal dance record The Triad.
• Mutual Benefit’s insular, orchestrated Skip A Sinking Stone.
• Bob Dylan’s second Sinatra tribute Fallen Angels.
• Angel Du$t’s tuneful hardcore rager Rock The Fuck On Forever.
• Marissa Nadler’s spare narco-folker Strangers.
• T-Rextasy’s DIY punker Jurassic Punk.
• Yuna’s personal, minimal R&B album Chapters.
• Tom Petty side project Mudcrutch’s second-nature 2.
• Adult Jazz’s tingly, experimental Earrings Off!
• All People’s emotive self-titled DIY album.
• The Shaker Hymn’s jangly, retro Do You Think You’re Clever?
• Comedy guy Tim Heidecker’s Jim O’Rourke-esque In Glendale.
• Fifth Harmony’s girl-group revival 7/27.
• Former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft’s new solo effort These People.
• Braids’ Companion EP.
• Cat Be Damned’s Daydream In A Roach Motel EP.
• Boys’ Love On Tour EP.
• Hollowtapes’ Tall EP.
• Blessed’s self-titled EP.
• Broadway Sounds’ Exclusive Love/Digital Influence EP.