For TOLEDO, How It Ends Is Just the Beginning
The Brooklyn duo’s poignant full-length debut finds a way forward through inherited painMusic Reviews TOLEDO
What are you supposed to do with bad feelings? You can’t just sit there feeling them—that’s obviously out. You can’t exercise, travel or drink them away, because they’ll still be right there waiting to lay you low once you tire out, come back home or sober up. And you can’t share them and bring someone else down—that’s out, too, unless you’re lucky enough to have family, friends, a partner, a therapist, someone willing to shoulder some of the load alongside you. Even then, you’re still a part of this makeshift vessel for emotion, holding a corrosive substance until … what? It evaporates? It’s somehow rendered neutral, like an acid by a base? It burns right through you?
There’s another option, the one that TOLEDO—Brooklyn’s Dan Álvarez de Toledo and Jordan Dunn-Pilz—went with on their debut album. You start by sharing your pain with that special someone else, but then you build a vessel for it together. You pour all the sadness and anger out of yourself, and into something like a song. Take “L-Train,” the first one that close friends Álvarez and Dunn-Pilz wrote for How It Ends: Against a gorgeous, atmospheric backdrop of acoustic fingerpicking, harmonica, strings and chimes, the duo recall a late-night New York City subway misadventure (“I never miss my train but I was drunk”) when they felt lost on multiple levels, harmonizing through the memories like they’re fishing them out of just one mind. “Lucky I got back to my place around 5 / and I cried,” they sing, the clipped lyric leaving more room for that lonely, defeated feeling. But there’s a longing for better days here, too, and a bravery about fighting one’s way forward: “I don’t wanna do this anymore / I wanna know me better.”
On this song, and most of How It Ends, TOLEDO channel their emotions through a sound they’ve taken time (and two EPs, 2019’s Hotstuff and 2021’s Jockeys of Love) to find. Dunn-Pilz has called it “Guster meets Duster,” while Álvarez cites Indigo Girls as the band’s foremost influence. Many have likened their music to Wild Pink’s pop, rock and folk amalgam (including Wild Pink’s John Ross himself), though their gentle, melodic sound and seamless creative chemistry calls their Grand Jury Music labelmates Hovvdy more readily to mind. They’ve collaborated (both on this album and elsewhere) with Jay Som’s Melina Duterte, whose gauzy guitar-pop presence is felt. It’s not lo-fi, exactly, but there’s a natural edge to it, with aural imperfections (like studio chatter, count-ins and, at one point, the sound of a Twitch stream) baked in, as if to bridge the gap between the duo and their listeners. Where on their EPs, TOLEDO was more a tug-of-war between the two singers and songwriters, they move in lockstep on How It Ends, writing and singing each song together from start to finish. Álvarez and Dunn-Pilz are more than the sum of their parts, building a beautiful, if imperfect, container for the pains of not only a drunken night on the “L-Train,” but also a lifetime—or two.
It can be difficult to unravel the duo’s intertwined experiences, which feels like precisely the point. When TOLEDO sing about childhood abandonment issues on opener “Soda Can,” an old friend mired in self-pity on “Hideout,” a drunken deadbeat dad on “Flake,” or the belief that romantic relationships cause more hurt than they’re worth on the Duterte-produced title track, there’s no sense in wondering which member of the band those thoughts belong to—they belong to you, regardless of whether you can relate. Much of How It Ends revolves around Álvarez and Dunn-Pilz’s troubled upbringings, and the ways their parents’ broken bonds have shaped their own lives. Feelings of rejection, inadequacy and wounded pride resurface again and again—the cycle of pain that is wanting someone else’s approval, taking steps to obtain it and failing to do so plays out on tracks like “Boxcutter,” where TOLEDO push the hook of “Was I enough?” as far as they can until the song shifts into a solemn piano outro. The songwriters are locked in conflict between lapsing into the self-pity they reject on “Hideout” and “L-Train,” and taking ownership of their own wellbeing despite how heavy a burden it can be. Also on “Boxcutter,” they sing, “I am not gonna feel resolved / I am not gonna feel it,” a line which communicates its inverse, too: Resolution requires confrontation.
Though they’d be the first to tell you that healing and growth aren’t linear, TOLEDO are able to imbue How It Ends with a strong arc, touching the third rail of trauma before moving towards emotional stability. They trace their troubles back to childhood on “Soda Can” and “Boxcutter,” see their depression reflected back at them on “Hideout,” acknowledge the agony of working through it all on “Keep It Down!” and then plow ahead doing exactly that in the album’s midsection, its strongest stretch. By the killer 1-2-3 of “Climber, “Flake” and “L-Train,” and the dream-folk downshift of “Leopard Skin” (a “song about a hickey,” the band explains in press notes), TOLEDO are doing the work to not only know and love themselves better, but also to aim that care and affection outward. Shoegaze instrumental “What Happened to the Menorah?” makes wordless space for the spiritual while functioning like a deep, rejuvenating breath after exertion. The incongruously upbeat “Ghosty” knows that your personal history persists, whether you think it’s finished business or not (“I see him again / There’s a ghost in the attic now”). And the touching indie-folk of closer “Fixing Up the Back Room” maps out a better future, with TOLEDO setting their sights on not only the continuous, incremental effort necessary to build a brighter life (“Counting the days / Ladders and crates / Fixing up the backroom”), but also a love like sugar for that bitter pill: “But William / The night you came / I fell apart / And into place.”
The album’s emotional progression is quite well-defined; its sonic progression, less so. Where most bands would frontload their debut record with a handful of their strongest songs, TOLEDO play the long game instead, saving their most anthemic vocal hooks and immediate grooves for the tracklist’s center. When “Climber” hits at track six, with its bright acoustic strums, bittersweet strings and breathy vocal harmonies, you might find yourself wondering why the band held it back so long, a gnawing that only intensifies as “Flake” and “L-Train” follow. Still, How It Ends never drags, even if it may take its time to ramp up. TOLEDO know how to inject even their most subdued compositions with dynamism: The acoustic dream-pop of “Keep It Down!” transforms from airy vocalizations (reminiscent of John Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” at least to me) into a swelling final act that evokes Transatlanticism-era Death Cab for Cutie. “Leopard Skin” pairs ghostly electric guitar with muted percussion and murmured vocals to best suit its focus on minute details of physical touch adding up to intimacy—yet once it collapses into organ hum, TOLEDO reconstruct it as a noise-rock-affected instrumental that you half-expect Ben Bridwell to start singing over. The hooky, ‘90s alt-rock-influenced “Soda Can” finds a higher gear, too, as if to put an even braver face on the duo’s insistence that “I’ve never felt dead inside.”
On How It Ends, TOLEDO have laid the foundations of a sound that’s familiar and warm, like that special person you can tell your troubles to. They’re working their way towards a better place as a band, just like the hurt, but healing human beings who populate their songs. They’ve turned their bad feelings into something good.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.