My favorite music seems to make me cry for some reason or another. Not all the time, of course, but here and there when my life circumstances or environment combines perfectly with the songs to provoke that kind of emotional response. Sometimes, as with Radiohead or The National, the tears are brought on because the music is just so damned sad. Other times, the waterworks are brought on by nostalgia, a la Big Star’s “Thirteen,” or sometimes even by the silly joyfulness of the riffs in songs like “Dance the Night Away.” But my favorite reason for tearing up to music is when the combination of instrumentation and lyricism is just so perfect that it feels brought on more by awe and reverence than anything else. Think “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem or “Gold Soundz” by Pavement. And, as of this May, almost every song on Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial.
Will Toledo is the creative force behind this Bandcamp success story. The new album is out after his Matador debut, Teens of Style, which culled from his self-released records for songs he wanted to give a more official treatment too. Now though, he’s coming through clearer than ever. His voice isn’t shrouded by reverb and distortion, and his songwriting is crisp as can be. This style of indie rock can benefit from the lo-fi treatment, and it did for most of his career, but the clarity here puts on display that his talent really carries through as well if not better with a cleaner production style.
It’s refreshing to hear such a guitar-heavy indie rock album capable of making an impact these days. Sometimes it seems like more critics are saying this sort of music is dead than are doing anything to help its survival. I’ve never been one to think it’s been in too desperate a place to begin with, but this record does a lot to raise the bar for everyone else out there. Indie rock may not be dying, but it’ll be hard for people to make it sound as alive as Toledo does on Teens of Denial. This is the sort of record where you wish like hell you could hear it again for the first time and that’ll keep rewarding return visits for years to come.
But the instrumentation isn’t the only vibrant highlight. This may be the first record this year where I’d really, really emphasize that close attention to the lyrics is essential to getting everything you can out of the album. Toledo’s dry tone delivers some of the year’s wittiest lines and some of the most impactful. Even the more innocuous lyrics like the repeated “It doesn’t have to be like this” on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” sound nothing short of anthemic in the context of the entire album.
As guitars pummel on “1937 State Park,” he delivers in a tone as deadpan as it is powerful, “I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice / My pain is my own.” It’s impossible to convey in plain text how amazing that moment is, but that’s part of what makes this record so incredible. These moments of impeccable rock and roll architecture are enough to get the most callous hearts soaring. Everything comes together in such a perfect way that no parts are interchangeable. To add or subtract from what’s here would be too uncouth for anyone’s good. These songs are filled with hooks, lyrics, overall orchestration and the like bound to move everyone in different ways. It may not make you cry from being overwhelmed by just how terrific it is, but it sure as hell makes me.
With Teens of Denial, Toledo has practically guaranteed himself a viable career for years to come. The fact he did it while still in his early twenties after laying a foundation of solid self-released records proves even further that his most creative days are probably still ahead of him. This is an album that makes you really fucking glad to be alive. For that matter, the very fact albums like this are coming out is enough reason alone to hope you get to stick around on this planet for a long, long time.