It wouldn't be quite right to say that Will Toledo has so much style that it's wasting. True, over the course of five years and about a dozen releases, the 22-year-old behind Car Seat Headrest sometimes seemed to run circles around the untold hordes of other bandcamp guitar kids taking their cues from the hallowed figures of '90s lo-fi. But on 'Teens of Style', Car Seat Headrest's Matador debut, even the quietest moments carry with them a sense that Toledo is using every bit of his considerable talent to maintain some kind of holy balance between scuzz and sublimity, effortless melodicism and fractured surfaces.
A set of recently re-recorded (and in some cases, rewritten) material originally put to tape between 2010 and 2012, 'Teens of Style' is a reflection of Toledo's skills not just as a songwriter, but as a self-editor and curator. Even the 'Bee Thousand'-like psych-pop shards here feel like part of a greater whole yet individually complete, every compositional detail situated in its proper place (however willfully asymmetrical that place may be). Largely handling mixing and production himself, Toledo has stubbornly maintained a bit of the sandpaper-coarse sound of past releases, yet wisely has given his words a bit more breathing room.
He possesses a comic sensibility that sometimes seems to be in dialogue with the likes of David Berman, Lou Barlow, and Isaac Brock, but is too personal to be directly descended from any Gen-X master. He's able to examine his own anxieties with a rare acuity; rarer still, he knows that there's something inherently laughable about attempting to conquer mountains of doubt with pop songwriting, and isn't above a few funny-dumb punch lines. 'Teens of Style's opening triptych of 'Sunburned Shirts', 'The Drum', and 'Something Soon' firmly establishes a knack for crafting quiet-loud anthems that would've made as much sense in 1995 or 2005 as they do in the present, but Toledo is also dexterous enough to contort genre to fit his neurotic narratives.
Take the compact 'No Passion', which comes off like the karaoke-friendly lounge pop track The Strokes never got around to recording. Toldeo's eminently quotable lines ("There's no way out for cowards / Suicide is embarrassing") tumble out in a fluid mumble-croon that suggests a sober Julian Casablancas in the midst of an existential meltdown. Initially, 'No Passion' appeared on 2011's 'My Back Is Killing Me Baby' as a delineation of sexual hang-ups and disappointments. For his first album on a sizable label, Toledo has transferred all that guilt and shame onto his marginal commercial prospects, deadpanning lines like, "In the morning I'm a corpse/Draft my emails to the corporation/"You're saving my life every day, God bless you."
Better still is the faux-symphonic ascent of 'Times to Die', a tower of self-loathing undergirded by complex vocal layering, dime-store brass, and a latticework of goofily artificial synth tones and ironically heroic guitar leads. Here, Toledo, adopting a yelping-into-the-void bark that expressly recalls the mid-2000s emoting of Wolf Parade and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, anoints Matador honcho Chris Lombardi as his personal savior. It's 'Teens of Style''s centerpiece, and the indie equivalent of a large-scale religious fresco, with a record deal likened to a covenant and label support equated with "divine council." The song's hilariously disenfranchised mantra ("We've all had better times to die / We've all seen better times to die"), meanwhile, hints at another niggling concern: What does lo-fi canonization even amount to considering that a born-too-late prodigy like Toledo has missed his moment by roughly 20 years?
The number of self-recorded bedroom balladeers seemingly proliferates by the day, but when it comes to unapologetically intelligent guitar music with a lyrics-first bent, the field of genuine torchbearers somehow appears to be narrowing. You sometimes get the feeling that Toledo is racing toward a valedictory spot at the front of an empty classroom, though that doesn't make his plight any less compelling. In fact, it lends an extra degree of poignancy to the proceedings.
While Michael Stipe gets name checked in 'Strangers' and Guided By Voices are cosmetically closest to the 'Teens of Style''s sound, spiritually, it's perhaps 'Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain' that looms largest. Still the gold standard for records about attempting to grow up without selling out, it was also an elegy for a sound that shrugging poet Stephen Malkmus already sensed was in decline circa 1994.
With that instant now a speck some twenty years back in the rearview mirror, Toledo has appropriately adopted a tenor of droll despair that permeates 'Teens of Style', right down to its ludicrously funereal cover art. In terms of album-length goodbyes to indie rock's halcyon days, consider this the nervously funny whimper to Pavement's majestically blasé bang; it's one young man's proper opening salvo cast as an entire genre's dying breaths. But for a last gasp, it sure sounds vital.
Words: Michael Wojtas
– – –
– – –