Pop music doesn’t need to be reassuring, any more than the weather need be sunny. And yet listeners often seek some positive message in even downcast pop music, searching for some aphoristic takeaway: You’ll get through this; these songs make even your sad-sack existence look bearable; it’ll be okay. If you’ve come to Car Seat Headrest’s second LP, Teens of Denial, looking for easy answers, look elsewhere. On “Cosmic Hero”, the final hook, “It’ll be alright,” is set against a concurrent scream of “Fuck you!” There are no miracles here. The album is, at its best, palliative care for the illness of modernity. The brains of the operation, Will Toledo, casts himself as no role model, articulating the warping forces of modern life, even as he acknowledges our collective powerlessness in the face of them. You might feel better, but you definitely don’t have to.
Teens of Denial, following quickly on the heels of last year’s fuzzy Teens of Style, opens with a female voice, saying, “What’s up guys? You are now listening to, uh, Car Seat Headrest.” The “uh” is pronounced, and lasts just long enough to suggest she doesn’t know who Car Seat Headrest is. As far as invocations go, this one states the obvious. And if Teens of Denial holds any great psychological power, it’s that Toledo is more able than most to state the obvious. He doesn’t suggest this honesty originates from any special power, but rather that modern society is sufficiently deluded that, in context, the clear-eyed man appears either crazy or especially insightful. “I’m freaking out in my mind,” he sings on the psychedelic drug trip “Destroyed By Hippie Powers”. Teens of Denial is both a little crazy and willing to look past our conscious selves.
Toledo pursues the hellscape of self-consciousness lyrically while producing ripping, straight-ahead rock songs. Nominally, Teens of Denial represents a narrative of sorts, following protagonist “Joe” across a number of modern set pieces. The real theater lies inside Toledo. On album opener “Fill In the Blank”, he produces as good a lead guitar line as you’ll hear this year, set against lyrics like, “You’ve got no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” Later, on “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”, he sings, “My phone is freaking out/ I lose my shit as it reroutes,” suggesting that knowing one’s place in the world these days has gotten a bit fraught. And so the album goes, racing narrative and counter-narrative, consciousness and self-consciousness in a 12-track game of chicken.
Those looking for social or moral coherence will be sorely disappointed. On the aptly titled “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, for example, Toledo romanticizes and then indicts drunk driving. Disgusted or not, the final hook — Toledo moaning “It doesn’t have to be like this/ Killer whales” into the void — is instantly memorable, and listeners may well forget the subject matter in singing along. Trying to find a simple message on Teens of Denial means embracing a narrator always slipping away from you, inverting your expectations, and speaking in paradoxes rather than parables.
The album’s lynchpin is the bleak allegory of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”. The organizing metaphor draws on the experiences of the captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, who managed to tear a hole in the side of his ship, botch the evacuation, and leave the wreck early. This modern love, Toledo shrugs. The song runs over eleven and a half minutes, a triptych focusing on different aspects of confronting adulthood. The second movement finds Toledo listing all the features of the adult world he wasn’t prepared for, staring into the ceiling light, wondering, “How many times have I drowned here?” He finds liberation in ennui, shouting, “I give up.” The final movement is a ripping festival of lead guitar and sixteenth-note snare. For the modern bourgeois listener, a too-expensive education hiding behind an impossible-to-place brand of misery, the metaphor of a wrecked luxury liner is appropriate.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the “intimate revelations of young men … are plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” Much will be made of the controversy with Ric Ocasek, lead singer of the Cars, who banned Car Seat Headrest from using the melody line and lyrics of “Just What I Needed” at the last minute on a song axed from the publicly released version of the album at an extreme last minute. Plagiarism is itself a modern discourse, though an external one. The real crippling modernity of Teens of Denial, on the other hand, lies within. Will Toledo knows well he is an amalgam of influences. The Cars borrowing was done explicitly, and he later paraphrases a Dido melody and lyric on “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”. We are a modern collage, never escaping pastiche. Teens of Denial takes its power from its absence of blind spots, its lack of Freudian suppression. Toledo looks long at himself and us, a sort of nauseous survivor of modernity. Sometimes just the looking itself is enough.
Essential Tracks: “Fill In The Blank”, “1937 State Park”, and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”