When Car Seat Headrest’s universally acclaimed indie-rock album Teens of Denial hit the market on May 20 of 2016, it solidified the band’s place as a definite frontrunner in the representation of their genre. Indie rock is an exceptionally difficult genre to describe, as it has broken away from its past meaning of ‘independent’, and now just originates from the broad-spectrum classification of alternative rock.
However, a lot of the best indie rock has a distinct, intangible feeling that fans can identify with. It feels under-produced, but in a good way; genuine, but professional. Car Seat takes this indescribable ‘indie’ quality and weaves it into the very essence of their music.
Lead singer Will Toledo’s drab, cracked voice and the bassist/guitarist Ethan Ives’s rumbling string plucks accomplish a large majority of this, but the band’s music also possesses a magnetic tone which can’t be attributed to anything other than pure talent. As an album, Teens of Denial is a near perfect extraction of Will Toledo’s lyrical and instrumental prowess. It showcases the electric sound that Car Seat Headrest controls, and the songs’ consistent quality proves that the band is capable of producing more magic in the future.
To be clear, Teens of Denial is nowhere near Car Seat’s first body of work. It’s technically their tenth album, and their second under Matador Records, but it is their first fully studio produced, edited, and recorded album, giving it a higher audio quality and production value than their previous works. It is also their first studio album to contain only new material, rocking out at 12 songs, and just over 70 minutes. Every last one of these 70 minutes is used wisely, being distributed into each track with a careful devotion not often seen in today’s music industry.
Fan-favorites such as Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, Fill in the Blank, Destroyed by Hippie Powers, and Unforgiving Girl don’t seem to carry on too long, and also don’t cut things too short. They’re undeniably great works that would make the album memorable on their own, regardless of the excellence found in the rest of the tracks.
The longest track on the record, Ballad of the Costa Concordia, clocks in at 11 minutes and 31 seconds and consists of 3 separate instrumental tones all lyrically reflecting on Toledo’s troubles adjusting to adulthood. The title of the song is a reference to a ship which sank hours after its departure, and metaphorically mimics Toledo’s immediate internal chaos when he is set off on his own. It begins with a slow, angry build, and beautifully collapses into a spoken word portion where Toledo reflects on his ignorance to the world’s machinations and responsibilities. The instrumentals then begin to build from there until they explode into grooving guitar riffs and adopt faster, punchier lyrics about Toledo’s failure to adjust to adulthood and his acceptance of his shortcoming. Ballad of the Costa Concordia is a musical masterpiece that needs every single one of its 11 and a half minutes to effectively tell its story, and it accomplishes its task of making a lasting impact.
Many of Toledo’s lyrics reflect very real and very mature anxieties and ponderings, which is a refreshing change from the common themes of love and heartbreak found in today’s music. Track #9, Cosmic Hero (clocking in at 8 and a half minutes), is perhaps the most mature song of the whole album. It doesn’t have one clear meaning, but multiple interpretations can be made. One interpretation is that Toledo is reflecting on his frustrations with himself and adulthood; noting that all he wants is to commit himself completely to something, but he can’t because of his plurality of responsibilities. Adulthood only adds more and more responsibility, and he doesn’t seem to find pleasure in any of it. He notes that often, the best thing to do for himself, is also the last thing he wants to do. He wants to escape, but he’s horrified of death. This puts him in a hard place, as suicide seems as if it’s the only possible disengagement from his responsibilities. His own hopeful heaven is just a place where he no longer needs to appease anyone or anything. The track is depressing, but relatable; and while many interpretations differ, a song with as many interpretations as Cosmic Hero’s is a song worth praise.
Teens of Denial may contain tracks such as Cosmic Hero and Costa Concordia, which will weigh heavy on the mind of the listener, but it also contains instrumental masterpieces that can fill a room with enthusiastic air-guitars and drums, or pack a car with head-bangers and harmonious vocalists. Vincent is the perfect example of a song that’s impossible to sit still to. With a two-and-a-half-minute minimalist intro ultimately building into an unforgettable instrumental escapade, Vincent makes its transition into a narrative of Toledo’s depression, sadism, and introversion. His mental state is explained through witty lyrics chock-full of self-recognition, and the message is imbedded within an innate jam session that every garage band would envy. Vincent undeniably brings out the best of the “rock” in indie rock.
The rest of the tracks on the album, including Not What I Needed, Drugs with Friends, 1937 State Park, Connect the Dots, and Joe Goes to School, are all memorable in their own right, and all have fans claiming them as their personal favorites and masterpieces. The album is so dense with brilliance that a concise dissection of the full work is nearly impossible.
Toledo’s writing and direction is clearly inspired by an internal drive for perfection and accomplishment, and it manages to capture all the crucial elements of indie rock while still maintaining a personal and unique sound. Fans also have plenty of reason to celebrate, as Toledo has stated previously that he has multiple songs written for years in advance, meaning there should be no short supply of Car Seat’s music anytime soon- and while not technically ‘due’ for an album until 2018, it wouldn’t be a surprise if an artist as dedicated and talented as Toledo released a respectable body of work some time sooner. Ultimately, if Teens of Denial is any indication of the quality of work to come, Car Seat Headrest will continue to be an example of musical professionalism that will bloom into an all-too-capable adulthood of its own.