As I sit here in the passenger seat of Tucker’s car while he drives us to Athens, shuffling between Ian William Craig’s Centres and Macabre’s treasure, Dahmer, I’m reminded of the looming review for Teens of Denial I needed to have done weeks ago. I let slip the chorus of “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” and we put it on. We don’t really take it seriously, lasting only about twenty-six seconds before putting on Clipse instead. This ADHD-driven playlist of randomly strewn together artists immediately reminds me of how little Car Seat Headrest has positively grown. Juxtaposed against artists whose intentions were to share their creativity with those willing to appreciate it, the once precious Car Seat Headrest now feels especially propped, hollowed by self-awareness and career aspirations. That smug assuredness is ultimately the most detrimental aspect of Teens of Denial. It feels entirely calculated, backed by executives and filtered through test groups to hit that perfect wave of classic rock nostalgia strung along by deeply brooding phrase-verses whose meaning is inconsequential. Given Will Toledo’s overnight portrait of being touted as the decade’s savior of rock, the meteoric rise of the band is a bit suspect.
Conspiracies aside, Teens of Denial has been hyped up as the 2016 equivalent to Funeral, championed as the purest rock record in ages, the answer to our bombardment of hip-hop and everything not rock, if you will. It’s such an unnecessary monument to throw at any album, much less Teens of Denial. Likely, this is most people’s first exposure to Car Seat Headrest, which is a shame because Twin Fantasy and How to Leave Town much more successfully show off Will Toledo’s knack for songwriting and light experimentation with a strong indie rock foundation. At least, they’re better at capturing that independent feel, the kind that left Toledo vulnerable, exposed, in the hopes of being picked up for his ingenuity and earnestness. And now, all that sincerity has landed the band on Matador Records, offering their cleanest, most well-polished, but ultimately safest, release.
There are no tracks on Teens of Denial that encapsulates the anxious momentum of “The Ending of Dramamine” or the palpable serenity of “High to Death”. Rather, the guitar riffs and drum work comes pre-packaged, a standardized how-to on rock n’ rollisms. And even though the lo-fi aesthetics have been ripped from the repertoire of the band, they do a fine job within the confines of their newly clean surroundings. Many tracks become borderline confusable, like the loosely held guitar trudging of “Not What I Needed” and “1937 State Park”, but guided by a series of damnably catchy choruses, it’s forgivable.
The instrumentation is pretty harmoniously similar, but the lyricism on Teens of Denial boils down to three types: a high-school-aged Will Toledo gushing out late-night pillow talk, a forty-year-old Will Toledo left dumbfounded at the youthful, mundane norms he sees before him, and an artificially intellectual Will Toledo mistily offering up random spouts of meaninglessness. A lot of times, the three Wills show up together, interchanging like some horrifically symmetrical Beastie Boys rock offshoot. Maybe a better description would be Toledo seems emotionally unstable, bipolar perhaps, but it’s all the same. In one instance, he’s experimenting with drugs and trying not to ruin his friend’s carpet, in another he’s proudly proclaiming he won’t make it into Heaven, and then in another he’s jaded by how much tourism his town experiences. The jump from angst-ridden teen to full-fledged curmudgeon can make for an atonal character study, but more often than not, the music drowns out any incomprehensibility. But hands down the most baffling instance of lyricism on Teens of Denial is on lead single “Drunk Drives / Killer Whales”. Aside from the poor connection of the dual title, the line “We are not a proud race/It’s not a race at all” just might be the most vapidly unintelligible piece of writing this year. Lines like these, which pop up more often than they rightfully should, act as a vacuous cloud of wit and provocation, offering a passing depth that immediately disappears after any thought is given to it.
And as much as there is to hate about Teens of Denial, from its change of form to its suspicious promotional outbreak, there’s a lot to love about it, too. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” illustrates exactly what the band does so well, namely drawn-out emotional epics whose crescendo is topped only by its accompanying vocals. The breakdown after Toledo declares he wouldn’t go down with his ship and putting his hands up at his impending doom could have been chalked up as another in a series of skippable spoken-word deliveries in the history of rock monologues. But the twinkling guitar that picks up speed, heightened by a ferocious ensemble, matches the aggression that builds within Will. And that’s his strongest asset as a musician: a natural ability to get adrenaline pumping during the swells of chant singing, to give his listeners a surge of life. When he sings, “It doesn’t have to be like this”, you believe him.
As our exit into Athens approaches, I realize I’ve been writing about Will Toledo for almost two hours, never giving more than a mumbled reply to Tucker as he points out our surroundings or asks me a question. Yes, that billboard is somewhat misogynistic; no, I’m not hungry yet; that was a bad accident we just passed. But above it is an unflinching blue sky. Teens of Denial is not the accident, nor is it the blue sky. It’s catered for the modern rock listener, whatever road trip comparison exists for that, if at all. It’s a little whiny without losing its head-banging qualities. It’s a little all over the place, and its intimacy will be claimed to outshine its blatant flaws. But most importantly, it’s honest, though its creation and marketing may be less so. Many will undoubtedly find solace in Toledo’s musings on the banality. He’s just shown, somewhat consistently, that even when discussing the platitudes of his life, he can sprinkle in experimentation and new approaches without losing any authenticity. And to be fair, innovation was never claimed to be the name of the game with Teens of Denial. I just wish it were.
– Zach W.