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Review: This Is a Long Drive for Car Seat Headrest on ‘Teens of Denial’

Carseat Head Rest, Photo By Anna Webber
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 20, 2016
Label: Matador

It’s funny to think just how recently Car Seat Headrest was a fungible musical commodity. The band, previously the sole province of musical director Will Toledo, drew comparisons in a Pitchfork review of Bandcamp Days Revisited compilation Teens of Style to Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, and (last but not least) Stephen Malkmus — all in the same sentence. Viewing the outfit as an aggregate of ’90s indie-rock anonymity wouldn’t necessarily have been accurate, but it wouldn’t have been unfair, either — especially because Toledo’s most singular quality, his sarcastic-toast-to-himself vocals, was buried under layers of distortion and reverb, like a first-time karaoke-er unsure of how much he really wants his voice to be heard just yet.

From the first line of Teens of Denial — a frequency-clear, AIM-iconic “I’m so sick of / Fill in the Blank” — it’s pretty clear this is no longer an issue. In fact, it’s fairly safe to say that the 12-track, 70-minute Denial is one of the most confident-sounding records ever made about depression, alcoholism, and self-defeat. The riffs scream out so jagged and unfiltered that you can feel the steel cutting into Toledo’s fingers, while his now-assured bleat rings clean over the mix, like he’s singing to you in the first row. I mean, there are mini drum solos in this thing, within multiple songs, and they pop off like friggin’ Fourth-of-July fireworks. It’s too rough to be compared to classic rock, but too big and too explosive to really be considered anything else.

Toledo’s songs have expanded to match his new stadium-sized sound, as well. “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” sounds like the Pixies soundchecking “Marquee Moon,”  and peaks with a moment of drunk self-indulgence and an anticipated-rhyme fake-out (“That guy I kind of hate is here / Shouldn’t have that last… HIT OF DMT!!“) that’s positively “Mr. Brightside”-worthy. Countrified bad-trip ode “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” mixes drugs, Jesus, and apathy with a casually anthemic ease that would make Lou Reed kvell. “Cosmic Hero” makes an eight-minute epic out of the bass rumble and foreboding guitar scrapes from Pavement’s “In the Mouth a Desert,” and brilliantly illustrates a Toledo on the edge of panic: “If you don’t come home tonight / You will never call it home again.”

Teens of Denial is an album that works until it doesn’t. That moment will come at a different time for every listener — maybe not until the 11:30-long “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” maybe by the end of the first lyric. For this writer, the moment comes near the end of “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” which goes for at least one chorus and one outro guitar flurry longer than needed. The LP suffers from 20/20 Experience astigmatism, where tracks don’t have quite as many musical ideas as they think they do, and nothing seems to end when you’re ready for it to be over. The 11-minute song isn’t even the problem so much as the fact that there are still two tracks to go after it — one of them is short, but it’s still a comma too many. It’s an interesting contrast with the prior most-discussed indie-rock of the month, Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost, which closed songs at the earliest plausible moment, like a friend who keeps all their stories short for fear you’ll lose interest by the end. Toledo’s jokes have such a long windup that you’re glancing at your watch before he gets to the punchline.

Not helping with the exhaustion is the album’s singularity of subject. The Headrest auteur is an exceedingly gifted writer, brilliant with detail and phrase-turning and suggestion, but Denial feels a little like a character-study Hold Steady LP where every character is Toledo. One of the unfortunate bits of losing the Cars-quoting section of “Not Just What I Needed” from the album was losing a sense of dialogue with Ocasek, a rare respite from the album’s endless ballads of self-absorption. Not to say that great albums can’t be derived from such myopia — ’tis the half-century anniversary of the all-time grandaddy — but it’s a big ask to sustain interest in this limited focus for 70-plus minutes. At least The Most Lamentable Tragedy has a plot.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to find Teens of Denial at least a little bit exhilarating, because Toledo’s now-fully-formed voice is such a new and powerful one, and because it’s easy to see how young listeners will find an entire universe to behold within. Listening to the album, the ’90s touchstone I’m actually the most reminded of is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, another album of considerable ambition and occasionally questionable editing, which could be as thoroughly transfixing or reflexively alienating as any other LP of its time, depending on how much you subscribed to its unlikely musical logic. Toledo could fulfill his potential with a generation-spanning career of success after this, or he could disappear for a decade and be heard from only sporadically after. Either way, 20 years from now, he’ll be the one who’s quoted by post-adolescents at their loneliest and ballsiest.