Will Toledo, the 24-year-old Bandcamp whiz kid and frontman of Car Seat Headrest, has gone from self-recording and -releasing nearly a dozen lo-fi albums to being signed to Matador (the record label of Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Liz Phair) and, in just over six months, releasing two acclaimed LPs.
The second of these, Teens of Denial, is a tangled, though never confusing, web of violence, drugs, and religion. Over the course of its twelve songs, Toledo’s fictional stand-in, Joe, stumbles through college parties, fears the cops, gets hit in the face, and dreams of otherworldly salvation. “I think no one desires rebirth unless they’re in a bad place,” Toledo tells the Voice via email. “You want to lacerate and remove only what’s bad in yourself, but when you recognize that the impulse to lacerate itself is bad, where does that leave you?”
Toledo’s deft wordsmithery takes this preoccupation with inner conflict and transforms it into sometimes weird, always compelling narrative. “When the basic glue of ego comes undone, the pieces of yourself will start to fight one another,” he explains. “The album is just like the ego: a conceptual glue around a bunch of contradictory pieces.” (That tension is echoed on the record’s cover, a black-and-white image of two men brawling that could very well represent dueling facets of the self.)
The search for reprieve from this mental fracas takes forms both light and dark: On the playful “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends,” Toledo laments the fact that “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a/Walking piece of shit/In a stupid-looking jacket.” Meanwhile, “Cosmic Hero” was inspired by the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic in which the main character reaches the afterlife — only to discover that none of his friends or loved ones are there. On both tracks, Toledo sets up a journey with no reward waiting at the end; as on his previous album, Teens of Style, he’s more interested in probing the psychology of being stuck.
By album’s end, Joe is seemingly no better off than he was at the start. He pets a horse in Colonial Williamsburg (a sightseeing attraction near his college), leaving when the tourists inevitably show up. He bikes down Duke of Gloucester Street, no surer of his place, no more comfortable. This album isn’t offering answers; it’s a document of the battle we all face in our early twenties and beyond, to exist in the world (and maybe someplace else) without falling apart. It’s a good thing that Toledo’s ear for moody, catchy melody, now supported by a full band, makes that vinegary message go down easy.