It’s rare to find people who don’t wrinkle up their nose when they hear the term “teenage angst.” The concept of teen angst always seems to be written off. It implies something transitory, something trivial. Just a phase. It’s a shame that a lot of people only understand the word “angst” when preceded by “teen,” because often, angst isn’t temporary or meaningless at all. Anxiety about being human sits on the shoulders of many, regardless of age, race, gender or type. A lot of people feel angsty a lot of the time, and it’s important not to trivialize something like that. All people have the right to ask the eternal “why.” All adults were teens at some point.
Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest, understands this. Toledo is not a teenager. At 24 years old, he is closer than many people are to the teen years, and those trials and wounds are fresher. But Toledo possesses wisdom. He is an old soul, perhaps. Through his music, he is able to capture the angst of teendom and express it in more a removed way, almost as retrospection. He makes songs about just six short years in a person’s life, and he makes them universally relevant and timeless.
A guy so young will have a pretty short backstory. Will Toledo grew up outside of Williamsburg, Virginia. Musically inclined from the start, Toledo was a band geek in high school, which probably surprises few people. In college he established his Car Seat Headrest project, a one-man-band in which he recorded his own music on his computer. A songwriter at heart, Toledo’s poignant, expressive lyrics made a solid base for his creative and experimental instrumentation. Car Seat Headrest was a one-man-band for a long time, and Toledo got the name from the fact that he liked to record vocal tracks in his car. Garageband helped him get his music out, and Bandcamp helped him get it around. Starting in May of 2010, a frenzied stint of prolificness ended with Toledo having recorded four albums in as many months. (I can’t help but repeat that - An album a month for FOUR MONTHS.) Early CSH music has qualities of shoegaze and electronic music, including a lot of vocal distortion and extended space-noise experimentation. Always the defeatist, Toledo was dismissive of most of his early work, even talking badly about it on his Bandcamp and in social media, until the album My Back Is Killing Me Baby. This album, and its follow up Twin Fantasy, garnered a significant fan base online, and knowledge of CSH grew. A few years later, Toledo’s stuff caught the ear of someone at Matador Records. His first release with the label, Teens of Style, brought him national attention and acclaim.
The music of Car Seat Headrest is lo-fi indie rock, with a range of influences from 90’s alternative to 80’s pop to maybe a hint of hip-hop from the oughts. CSH is reflective, vulnerable songwriting on top of a keen pop sensibility, and a knack for spaced-out epochs at the same time. CSH really doesn’t do well with descriptors or fit well into boxes. Toledo is good at sticking out.
The breakout album Teens of Style is actually a collection of previously recorded songs from Toledo’s earlier work. Here, he assembles some of his older tracks together into a cohesive theme. The theme, as you may have guessed, centers around the ecstasy and agony of youth. Teens of Style plays a lot like the soundtrack to a torrid summer vacation. “Sunburned Shirts” opens with shimmering reverb and the echo of Toledo singing through a modulator, and the heat bears down. One song explicitly invites teenagers to take off their clothes (even in its title). The tongue-in-cheek “Times To Die” has Toledo wrestling with his life progress compared to his peers, a story told in multiple blended parts, making the song almost like a medley. He ties his feelings to figures of suffering and comes out of it with the chorus line, “We’ve all had better times to die.” Toledo also bucks stereotypes and shows just how accessible an introverted indie band can be. And the standout “Something Soon” is a true pop song, and a youth anthem through and through.
Will Toledo followed Teens of Style with the highly-anticipated Teens of Denial, released this past summer. With all new material, and recorded on a major label with an actual band, this was Toledo’s first “real album.” Here, thematic elements of Style are further explored and dialed up. Toledo addresses depression, drinking, drugs and loneliness, all through the eyes of a youth pushing up against the arrival of maturity. Moods climb up and plunge down, whether with snarling, feedback-loaded guitar sessions or painstakingly built, devastating ballads.
The opening track forces that occasionally nauseating feeling of the human struggle to the front with the very first line: “I’m so sick of… (fill in the blank)...” And the tone is set.
“Vincent” takes an antisocial person to a party and leaves him there, his resentment festering and turning to pure anger as he leaves sobriety, and then the party gets worse. Track four, called “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem),” tells a story with multiple narrators and different points of view, all ending with the same desperation and a haunting, helpless chorus that takes the song out on repeat: “Drugs are better, drugs are better with/Friends are better, friends are better with/Drugs…”
The album’s climax comes with “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” arguably Car Seat Headrest’s best song to date. This song has two parts. The thematic reason for Toledo to combine the two into one song is disputed. The first part of the song reads like a post-party, anti-drunk driving PSA, but it sounds more personal than that, filled with guilt and regret. DD/KW is the peak in someone’s life at which exploration and self-destruction collide and collapse. It’s something that many teenagers go through, and a feeling that many people experience at some point.
As cheesily said by others before me, the song crashes into the chorus like a whale into the sea. Many people like to interpret the second half of the song, the “Killer Whales” part, as drunk drivers on the roads, turning their cars into whale-sized killing machines.
Teens of Denial has roundly received positive reviews, including making the list of the best albums of 2016 so far for both Pitchfork and NPR. It’s been so well-received because it can appeal to people at every level of human experience. Here is my experience:
Car Seat Headrest opened up Pitchfork Music Festival 2016. It was 3 p.m. on a Friday and unseasonably chilly, with the skies threatening rain. As with most acts that open up a festival, the crowd was moderate and the vibe started sleepy. It didn’t stay that way. Toledo and his crew played like they were the closing headliner. His drummer was steadfast and tight and his guitarist completely annihilated his instrument. Toledo was explosively emotive and unreserved. He was an introvert at his most outgoing, his most comfortable. He didn’t seem to care what time it was or the fact that it started raining a bit. His diehard fans didn’t either. They were planted front and center in their own type of indie mosh pit, and just gleeful. But one of the things that stood out the most to me about that show was the age range of his fans. It was like everyone’s dad had come with. I couldn’t believe how many gray hairs I saw on those banging heads.
It’s because Car Seat Headrest, in spite of the choice of musical subjects and themes, isn’t teenage music. Everyone feels the angst of humanity occasionally, or often. All adults were once teens, and teens are people too. His themes are ours.
Car Seat Headrest is playing the Pygmalion Festival on Thursday, Sept. 22rd, at the Krannert Center, from 8:15 - 9 p.m. Check out the Pygmalion website for tickets and more information.