Car Seat Headrest Is Gloriously Morose In 'Teens of Denial'

May 11, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 2:43 pm

This review has been revised from its original version. An excerpt of the Car Seat Headrest song "Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed" used an unlicensed sample of The Cars' "Just What I Needed." That excerpt has been removed from the review at the request of Matador Records.

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This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has the review of a new album he describes as ambitious and passionate. It's by Car Seat Headrest. That's the name that singer-songwriter Will Toledo performs under. He self-released 11 albums before signing to a major label. His new collection is called "Teens Of Denial."


CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) Mind's still alive for mornings. I'd survived another night. I'd walk to breakfast through the garden, see the flowers stretching in the sunlight. Now I...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It's been said that Will Toledo took the name Car Seat Headrest because he recorded some of his first songs while sitting in his car, a refuge for some privacy. Still in his early 20s, Toledo sings exactly like you might expect a young man craving both solitude and connection with the world might sound - conflicted, moody, wry, depressed and angry around the edges. Like a lot of good rock music, he makes his intense self-consciousness compelling, even exhilarating. Let's listen to a bit of what Toledo calls the mission statement of the album, a song called "Fill In The Blank."


CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) I'm so sick of fill in the blank, accomplish more, accomplish nothing. If I would split in two I would just shake my fists so I can beat up the rest of me. You have no right to be depressed. You haven't tried hard enough to like this. I haven't seen enough of this world, yeah, but it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, so stop you're whining and try again. No one wants to cause you pain. They're just trying to let some air in but you hold your breath, you hold your breath, you hold it. Hold my breath, I'll hold my breath, I'll hold it (ph).

TUCKER: That song typifies much of this album "Teens Of Denial," heavy with guitar riffs and slamming percussion over which Will Toledo sings in a plaintive wail. He knows what he sounds like. Not for nothing does he have a line there saying you have no right to be depressed. Even as his music stakes a claim for being quite gloriously morose.


CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) What a glorious hole we have found until I recognize the sound of my voice again. For years, I hadn't had a clue. Suddenly I can look through your eyes again. This isn't sex, I don't think. It's just extreme empathy. She's not my ex and never got mad (ph), but do you still think of me? They said that the world is one, but if the world is one how come you never come around anymore? I guess it's not that simple. Well...

TUCKER: Last year, Toledo put out his first major label release, "Teens Of Style," re-recordings of some of his older material. "Teens Of Denial" is therefore his first proper studio album. And he does his best to make it sound thrown together. Car Seat Headrest specializes in what might be called the mock-spontaneous, the feeling that he works hard to sound as though he's making it up as he goes along. Will Toledo is a sly guy.


CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) Little boy says I’ll be in love with my fists. Little boy says I’ll be in love with my punches. Little boy says what should I do with my hands mom? Little boy is told not to do anything wrong. When I die I’ll be taken to the constellations, have a drink, relax, there’ll be some introductions. This is Cassiopea. This is Orion. This is Cindy. This is Nathan. That’s Chrissy and the other Nathan...

TUCKER: Will Toledo tips his hand there. He loves pop music hooks and catchy choruses as much as he likes to moan about his feelings of crippling ennui. It's in that gap between stated sentiments and the way the music so energetically contradicts him that Toledo achieves some of his best effects.


CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) In the backseat of my heart my love tells me I'm a mess. I couldn't get the car to start. I left my keys somewhere in the mess. It comes and goes in plateaus, one month later I'm a pro. My parents would be proud or fall asleep on the floor...

TUCKER: Of necessity I've played short bits of this album "Teens Of Denial" and I should therefore make sure to point out that Will Toledo really likes to stretch out and talk and wail away on his guitar. The majority of the songs on this album exceed the five-minute mark, and, one, "The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia" is an epic of romantic anger and agony that clocks in at over 11 and a half minutes.

Nevertheless, I've played it and indeed the entire album many times over now and I'm always freshly nourished by the vigorousness of Will Toledo's arguments with himself, the consistent energy of Car Seat Headrest's dispair. He makes you want to sing along with his compulsive complaints.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo! TV. He reviewed the new Car Seat Headrest album, "Teens Of Denial." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


GARY COLE: (As Kent Davison) Catherine, America doesn't like you.

SARAH SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) What?

COLE: (As Kent Davison) That sounded way too harsh when boiled down to a headline thought.

GROSS: We'll talk with Gary Cole, who co-stars in HBO's "VEEP" as the socially inept pollster Kent Davison. And we'll hear from Daniel Clowes. His "Ghost World" comics were adapted into a film. He has a new graphic novel. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.