With Teens of Denial marking the 13th album from Car Seat Headrest in just six years, Will Toledo has proven to be the 21st century analogue of one Robert Ellsworth Pollard in terms of prolificacy. Pollard’s grand ambition of arena rock stardom didn’t materialize in recorded form until Guided By Voices’ 1986 EP, Forever Since Breakfast, was issued with Pollard already approaching 30. Whereas Pollard favored the immediacy afforded by four-track cassette recorders, Toledo, at 23, has embraced today’s digital means of distribution, serving as the poster boy for Bandcamp success after signing with Matador last year.
Trailing Pollard in 2016 output, Toledo nonetheless shares his elder’s affinity for acts that have come before. Given the age difference, touchstones for Toledo largely include Pollard’s contemporaries; while Pollard was able to distill his British Invasion influences into a distinctly American sound, Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest is an amalgam of his musical roots that amounts to Six Degrees of Indie Rock. A studied exercise in adoration, one can connect the dots of Teens of Denial to Beck’s Stereopathetic Soulmanure and its more conservative use of parenthetical song titles on the couched irony of “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” with its parental questioning of “Who are you to go against the word of our fathers?”; the Pixies’ sonic dynamic on the bad trip “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”; and Neutral Milk Hotel’s stoned brass on “Cosmic Hero”; all the while unedited Wowee Zowee-era Pavement looms over the entire affair.
Working with a full band for the first time, Toledo lays his disaffected first-person tales over sounds culled from mix-tapes unearthed in rusted Camaros. Before “Vincent” gives way to the garage squall revived by the Strokes, two minutes are spent recreating Pete Townshend’s programming of Meher Baba’s birth that graced the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Also present is a nod to Deep Purple’s late Jon Lord on “1937 State Park” with its stilted synths. Recalling Robert Plant’s “cough” on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, the sincerest moment on Teens of Denial is a simple between-take “fuck you” that falls at the end of the thrashing and wholly unnecessary “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”.
Toledo’s flawed heroes and their bratty smarm deliver a freshness lacking in recent indie rock circles. At his best, Toledo can turn clever lines like “For years I hadn’t had a clue / But suddenly I can look through your eyes again / This isn’t sex, I don’t think / It’s just extreme empathy” and “In the backseat of my heart / My love tells me I’m a mess / I couldn’t get the car to start / I left my keys somewhere in the mess” to catch you off guard. Conversely, his facile self-loathing and lyrical ambivalence begin to wear like a new shoe that won’t stop rubbing one’s heel. With brevity missing from Toledo’s musical toolkit (see the blame-deflecting “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” and its 11:32 run time), the pain is exacerbated by songs that are simply too long to be memorable; what few hooks exist on Teens of Denial are quickly forgotten.
To anoint Toledo the voice of a generation is premature; Teens of Denial looks no further forward than the next update to Cards Against Humanity with the First World problems of album opener “Fill in the Blank”. A gateway drug for today’s Millennials to discover those who have come before, once those who hang on every word of Car Seat Headrest sleep off the prescriptions, side effects and intoxicado psychiatry of Teens of Denial, reality will reveal its only truth lies in “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, with Toledo admitting, “It was all just an act / It was all so easily stripped away”.
Now go and listen to Bee Thousand.