By Jason Herring, June 16 2016 —
Will Toledo has broken into a new phase in his career. The prolific 23-year–old songwriter, who records music under the name Car Seat Headrest, moves away from his characteristic lo-fi production on his 13th — and best — album, Teens of Denial.
Most of Toledo’s past albums were recorded with a lo–fi sound out of necessity rather than choice — he recorded the vocals for his early songs on a laptop in the backseat of a car because he was too embarrassed to sing in front of his parents. The sound stuck. But even though the singer sounds much more clear on his new record, the dry wit and adventurous songwriting that originally made Car Seat Headrest exciting hasn’t changed.
Toledo is a master of stretching songs into epics by building tension that breaks into a cacophony of distorted guitars or a guttural yell. Early album highlight “Vincent” accomplishes this handily, letting an extended intro simmer until it boils over in a jumbled array of brass and fuzzy guitars.
As a lyricist, Toledo embraces the role of the apathetic party-goer, usually indulging in one substance or another. He often incorporates a wry sense of humour into his tracks, and the comedic timing is brilliant. “I’ve been waiting all my life,” Toledo croons on “Not What I Needed,” before dropping an unexpected punchline — “I’ve been waiting for some real good porn.”
Elsewhere, the album varies in tone. “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” documents a bad drug trip while Toledo reflects on how music changes with age, and “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” serves as a confessional with confused and accusatory lyrics questioning past decisions.
The crowning achievement of Teens of Denial — and of the Car Seat Headrest discography — is “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” On the track, Toledo abandons his distant lyricism in exchange for a track that emanates hope for change. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” he wails as the song reaches its emotional peak. The moment feels anthemic and universal in the way that all classic indie songs do.
Teens of Denial is full of moments of joy, despair and vulnerability. Toledo is an expert at extracting these emotions and turning them into beautiful, disjointed songs. That was the songwriting that drew fans to his music during the early lo-fi days, and the new album’s clear production shines a brighter light on Car Seat Headrest’s brilliance.