Toledo makes the mundane seem remarkable.
The most obvious dig against Teens of Denial is that it is self-centered. Over the course of 11 tracks spread out over a whopping 70 minutes, Car Seat Headrest, which is pretty much just 23-year-old Will Toledo, counts and recounts the experience of being young, despondent and on drugs. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, chronicling one’s bad trip (“(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This isn’t a Problem)”) or referencing a laundry list of financial missteps (“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”) for over an hour would wear out its welcome quickly. Fortunately, Toledo is not a lesser songwriter.
The best composers make the personal universal, and Toledo achieves this time and again on Teens of Denial through specific detail. “Drugs with Friends,” for example, demystifies the drugs-as-ascension myth in one swift, cutting lyric (“Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/ I did not transcend/ I felt like a rotten piece of shit/ With a stupid-looking jacket.”). In one well-observed sentence Toldeo sums up the experience of trying to connect with someone who’s high, from the perspective of the stoned and the sober: “They were falling to pieces right before my eyes/ And I said “mmhmm” a lot”. The subject matter might not be deep, but it’s as rich as anything that’s come out on the subject.
Teens of Denial is like a conversation with someone observant, brilliant and plainspoken. Toledo makes the mundane seem remarkable, and citing the record’s sharp wit would be akin to spoiling a good book. Observations like “I didn’t want you hear that shake in my voice/ My pain is my own” and “I’m so sick of/ Fill in the blank” are merely the tip of the spear. Toledo’s delivery is the right combination of earnest and disaffected, his register somewhere between Lou Reed and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and he hits all the emotional notes one might expect from those two.
Musically, the album is an omnibus of ’90s college rock. It’s easy to hear shades of Pavement and Guided by Voices in the album’s sickly, winding guitar solos, especially on tracks like “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and “Not just What I Needed.” Going beyond those clear touch points, there are elements of theatrical pop making in line with Warren Zevon or Okkervil River on “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” and “Drunk Driver/Killer Whales,” as well as touches of post-punk groove on “Vincent.” All these disparate influences make for a singer-songwriter record done up in the guise of classic rock.
Sounds aren’t the only thing that hearken back to ’70s. Save for its 90-second closing acoustic track, the album’s songs run long, which works both for and against it. The length allows something like “Not Just What I Needed” to devolve from an earnest rock song into a melt of hiss, howling, tape-delay and what sounds like a pre-recorded interview with Toledo. Had the songs not been pushed past the four-minute mark, they might not have had room for such cacophony. The same goes for “Vincent” and “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” which pivot mood and perspective through shifting bass lines and evolving guitar solos. The downside of this is that, for all its charms, the album sometimes feel like too much. The album’s best track,” The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” is a 12-minute long epic that gives way to “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra,” a six-minute rocker that feels like a comedown after such a gigantic lead-in. Toledo may be sharp and committed to musical exploration, but it can be hard for him to sustain that commitment.
Those moments of drag are worth it. Teens of Denial is a generous record bursting with so many ideas that Toledo seems like he’s rushing to get them out, trying to connect and willing to share personal stories of failure. Toledo is like the kid who filmed bags in American Beauty, looking for connective tissue in the trash around him.