a meditation on a band — in six parts
this is something i wrote over the course of 3 hours, edited over the course of 1, and is now being seen by your ocular devices. no care for capitalization was made (i’m sorry.) and any mistakes or opinions are my own.
today i’m gonna talk about car seat headrest and experiences w/ their music. similar to thom avella’s youtube video on death grips. you can google that yourself if you want to watch it, i’m feeling lazy. warning for unabashed love for media.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END: PART i
so. the first time i heard of car seat headrest was not hearing OF them, rather, hearing them. my friends max, cole, and I had a collaborative playlist on spotify where we had compiled a bunch of tracks we liked. it’s still public. if you’d care to seek it out and see the rest of our musical tastes, look for it. it’s called “Dank Fire “Meme” Tape” (don’t judge us, we were young(er).) anyway, one of the songs on that playlist, was Fill in the Blank. you may be familiar with this track if you are familiar with car seat headrest. it is the opener to their most recent album, Teens of Denial, and their most popular song on spotify. it’s not a bad song; far from it, but it’s definitely only a start from the heights that Car Seat Headrest can reach. Anyway, I had heard it in my frequent shuffle plays of the playlist, but it wasn’t too noteworthy. I thought it sounded good, glanced at the band name, then continued on without another thought.
a few months later, I was on a trip with a family friend who happens to be a music lawyer. because of this he goes to a lot of festivals and knows about the up and coming artists. we were talking music, and he mentioned that I should listen to car seat headrest. I mentioned I had their song on one of my playlists. We continued on.
As I imagine it happening, later that month I was listening to that same playlist again. And I saw Fill in the Blank come on. And I remembered that recommendation And so I listened to Teens of Denial.
I TALK ABOUT THE SMITHS FOR NO REASON: PART ii
There is something about listening to an album for the first time. Before you know everything about it, and it is noise that you are trying to make sense of. I recall the first time I heard The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths. I had on a pair of shitty headphones, lying in bed, sleeping in the same room as my cousins. As to not wake them with the glow of my phone, I folded my head into the covers and tented it with my knees. As I sat there in the glow of an artificial light, I heard the sample of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” for the first time. And I’m not sure if I knew what to make of the whistle, Mike Joyce’s punchy drums, or the warped wah noise of the guitar. But there was a certain way to the singer’s wail, the lyrics, and the treble-y guitar that hooked me. It made me want to listen to it again, and understand it.
My favorite albums aren’t immediately discernible. The best albums you have to listen to again, and again, until you’ve appreciated all its pieces. And then you can put it back to together and love the whole. That’s a labor intensive way of looking at it, I know. And you can have songs you love but don’t analyze for one reason or another. But my favorites will always be the puzzling albums. This is not to say that albums have to be hard to understand either. I have a shameless love for 60s bubblegum pop. But my favorite albums seduce you on their first listen, leaving you with more questions than answers. And albums that you can both listen to without a thought, but also observe every masterful detail? Those are the ones to truly treasure.
Anyway, that digression was to try to make you understand how I felt about Car Seat Headrest on first listen. I was curious-apprehensive, even, since I had that anticipation of wanting to like them. As soon as you get past the title track (which I had already heard), you get Vincent. And Vincent is a fascinating track for a first listener. It starts with this two note guitar riff that you expect will get boring. My father even asked once if our speakers got stuck while listening to this song, because of this riff. But if you get past the 26 second mark, you can tell something is going on here. And it’s tense. You’re coming off this pretty standard garage rock song, and expecting to hear more of the same. Instead you’re hearing a simplistic guitar riff with bits of synth and guitar thrown in. But you’re still anticipating that drive. And the song makes you wait 1 minute and 44 seconds for drums and guitar to kick in. And then ANOTHER minute for the vocals to kick in. And boy, does it kick in. Even with Will Toledo’s monotone singing, the guitar is roaring in a dry and driving way. And then you’ve got me, who did not listen to the lyrics of Fill in the Blank, and is expecting a Weezer rip-off. But instead, you get lyrics about depression and Van Gogh. And even in this first listen I hear him reference Wikipedia? In a song? And I understand it, that’s the thing. And now I am even more enraptured as the song gains speed. And you are so thankful for that 2 minute build-up because it makes the rest of the song seem WORTH IT.
Okay, I’m done describing things track by track, because I have 4 more albums to get to. I listened to Teens of Denial, and it was pretty dang good. It was the only album I listened to for awhile. As I do, I read as many articles about the band as I could, to try to understand them. And one day while listening to Vincent, I look up the lyrics on Genius. And I discovered this treasure trove of comments done by Will himself. I devoured these annotations, and my appreciation for this album became twofold. It’s not another boring indie rock album. There are references to real intellectual stuff, Rumi poems, bible passages, david lynch. And it soon becomes one of my favorite albums, because it is EXACTLY the type of album that speaks to me. It achieves honesty through references and influences. Great artists steal, right? Oh, and then there’s of course Ethan’s kickass guitar playing which I would be remiss to mention.
BACK TO THE ACTUAL STORY: PT iii
This all happened in January of 2017. My January playlist contains TWO car seat headrest songs, which should show how much I was into them. I usually consider putting two songs by the same artist on a playlist taboo. I’m pretty sure sometime during this I lurked on /r/CarSeatHR and saw a thread about what album to listen to after ToD. They recommended Twin Fantasy. And so I took a cursory listen to it but didn’t pay attention to it. Then I forgot about Car Seat Headrest for a few months while I became obsessed with Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Then April rolled around and I was back in. What propelled me more into the fandom was joining the (now late) Car Seat Headrest discord. The saga of THAT is something else, but let’s say I had a lot of catching up to do. I was surrounded by way more veteran fans and I hadn’t listened to Twin Fantasy more than once.
I don’t have any concrete memories of listening to Twin Fantasy for the first time. But I do have memories of needing that album, as I was curled up in bed trying not to hate myself. It’s a good album. I almost don’t want to spoil you the pleasure of listening to it. I know some people reject it because of how lo-fi it is. However much I reject that opinion, that’s fine. You can listen to Teens of Denial and Teens of Style and have that be all. But for me, it wasn’t enough. I devoured Twin Fantasy, Monomania, How to Leave Town, My Back is Killing Me Baby, Nervous Young Man. I don’t have definite memories of listening to these albums like I do Teens of Denial. But they have have helped me keep sane, and for that I am eternally grateful.
THE CURTAIN IS THERE FOR A REASON: PART iv
I’m not going to lie when I say I became obsessed Will himself. I was young, and I wanted to mean something, and he had done that. I built him up as a character, because I wanted so bad to be able to understand how he worked. I even wrote a song called “Like Will Toledo” where I lamented all these things. Of course, looking back at it, his works are all human works. They’re not perfect. Times To Die, while being a song with sweeping religious metaphors is boring to listen to. I used to revere songs such as these- building these complex metaphors and links back to other albums. They are a pop culture band. These albums wouldn’t exist if not for their predecessors in classic rock. In some ways, these albums date themselves. In a hundred years they might not stand up, since nobody will understand the references. But there’s something special about that. Never has there been a truer example of the fact that nothing is created in a bubble. In some ways, Car Seat Headrest’s discography feels like a television show: It has references the outside world, it has callbacks to old songs, and if you look hard enough, it has a cast of characters and a story. Now, I’m not telling you to look into Will’s backstory and the real stories behind these albums, but I did. And there is always something about looking behind the curtain that ruins a bit of the magic.
Will is not a perfect person, and I feel the need to say that after praising his work an almost ridiculous amount in this piece. If you want to see him as a figurehead, then it’s your choice. But it will taint some of your feelings on these albums. But I would also say it’s not the artist’s job to paint a perfect picture of themselves. They’re only painting a picture. If you’re like me, though, the nature of Will’s music will make you want to dig to the person himself. But you don’t need to. To quote him: “We’d be starving artists if we were artists/ But we’ll never let ourselves become the art”. He’s a person. He’s created thirteen full pieces of art for you to consume (and so much more if you want to dig.) So to look to him, to be a model person, a piece of an art, would be a mistake. I did this. And then I found out some of his mistakes, and that marble person I had on a pedestal broke. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. And I became quite jaded for awhile about Will’s music. I called it pretentious and made fun of it. But I’ve allowed myself to come to terms that it coexists with Will the person as a separate entity. And my advice is that you view it like that too.
I TALK ABOUT HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS BAND: PART v
This is the part where I review all the albums. I’m omitting 1, 2, 3, 4, and Little Piece of Paper with “No” Written On Them because I haven’t listened to them thoroughly enough to give my opinion.
My Back Is Killing Me Baby: This album does not receive as much attention, quite likely because it preceded Twin Fantasy. But, it’s got some of my favorite car seat headrest songs on it. It doesn’t satisfy me as a concept album like Will’s other works do, but it is a very coherent and collected set of ideas. This presents to me more as an album of singles than as a whole work. favorite songs: the drum, sunburned shirts, something soon, lawns.
Twin Fantasy: As a precursor: this review here is meant for people who have heard the album. Please, just go listen to it. I don’t want to build your expectations up. Just listen to it.
I mean…what can you say? I hesitate to say it’s a masterpiece because that’s a hefty thing to say and to put on someone, but it’s pretty damn good. This album succeeds very well as a concept album. There are clear complex themes that will leave you in a catatonic state after listening to this. I mean, then there’s also the fact that sometimes the lyrics can get you so good it hurts. I could write full length blog posts on most of these songs. Car Seat Headrest exceeds here at being relatable, while also being intellectual. Relating feelings in terms of other media is a masterful tool. I’m going to take a brief moment to go through a few tracks that kill me on this thing. Beach Life-In-Death is a genius song. Even as it is long and winding and changes like a snake, you could argue it is the simplest song on this album other than Stop Smoking. It is simply insane to think this was written by a teenager. This song alone encompasses so much of the teenage experience in the isolation, in the hoping and the waiting, and just feeling out of control of your future. Parts of song have haunted me for so long. This song is just as much about finding something worth living for as it is about finding the strength to get out of bed to buy some groceries. My favorite part of this song, probably, is that it means different things to a lot of different people. Before I talk on it for too long, I’m going to move to Sober to Death. I learned this song and it was the first song I ever performed in front of an audience. I’ve spent a lot of time with it. It’s about having to be saved at the same time that you are someone’s savior. These are all obviously my projections onto this album. But it feels so personal, how can you not project onto it? Then there is Famous Prophets (Minds) which is just hands down probably one my top 3 car seat headrest songs. The biblical references, and oh god, the disappointment. And Bodys? Bodys, as far as I am concerned, is a Twin Fantasy’s pop song. It’s about dancing and nervous love. Also, the stripped down instrumentals just completely match the unashamed youngness of this album. I can really talk about this album forever so I ought to stop now. favorite tracks: Beach Life-in-Death, Sober to Death, Famous Prophets (Minds), Bodys.
Monomania: I hesitate to say I love this album the most, because I don’t think I can. It would actually hurt me. I like it in a different way than Twin Fantasy. Twin Fantasy is like a whirlwind of emotion and hurt and love, and by comparison, this is cold and dark. It makes sense, since it’s a breakup album. It’s synth filled and I love it. It’s moody and feels like another good exploration of themes. Will once said in an interview (paraphrasing here) that every time he has period of time in his life, he needs to write an album to get out of it. And it’s evident here. There is a sort of distant-ness to this album, it’s cloudy and windy and not quite clear. If you think that Twin Fantasy is too sappy, then you probably like Monomania better. I must take a moment to talk about Los Barrachos (I Don’t Have Any Hope Left, But the Weather is Nice) because it is SO good. The way that it builds to the chorus, the reference to The Triumph of Bacchus, it all paints such a clear picture. Oh, and it’s catchy as hell. It’s awesome. favorite tracks: overexposed (enjoy), los barrachos (i don’t have any hope left, but the weather is nice), souls, maud gone, anchorite (love you very much).
Starving While Living: This is an EP. But it is also good. It feels like a spiritual successor to Monomania. It is more of will’s on the electronic side, which I love. To be honest, I should listen to it more, since Reuse the Cels is a great song, and I love the concept it’s based on. It’s got a bunch more great singles. Honestly, I don’t have much to say on this one except that it works as an EP and I’m glad that it exists as its own thing. favorite songs: It’s Only Sex, Reuse the Cels, Oh! Starving.
let’s take a brief break. This is more for my sake than mine, but I started this blog post at 8:05 am and it is now 10:27 am. I have only take a break to make sure I’m quoting things right. I’m quite hungry and maybe you are too. Go get a snack. We’re close to the end. Or you spent time reading this for no reason. According to my count, up to this point it would take about 10 minutes to read, so maybe it’s unnecessary. Either is fine. Let’s continue. (one footnote: I’m not sure why i’m writing this to myself other than to give an excuse to go eat some breakfast.)
Nervous Young Man: Oh boy. I held off from listening to this album for a long time, because it’s quite long, and I didn’t want to like it more than Twin Fantasy. I know this is a stupid reason. Anyway, I have now listened to it a lot of times and I like it a lot. Not more than Twin Fantasy or Monomania, though. As much as I like this album, I’m going to cite a silly complaint: It’s too long. I like to listen to albums the whole way through when I can but I just never have a full 2 hours to spare to listen to this thing. Whenever I do listen to it, it is usually half on my way to school and half on the other way back. I don’t love this because it completely separates the album for me. I usually get to Goodbye Love or I Can Play Piano before I have to do something else. That’s how side A and side B splits out for me. Onto the actual album: This has a lot of great ideas on it and it does a lot with its long length. It feels very ambitious. Despite Twin Fantasy and Monomania’s sky high ambitions, this feels even sky high-ier. I like a lot of these songs but I’ve never been able to see it as a full album (aformentioned problem). Another admission: I have not gone through the lyrics on this album as thoroughly as Twin Fantasy, Monomania, or Teens of Denial. But I still love it a lot. favorite songs: we can’t afford (your depression anymore), afterglow, broken birds (rest in pieces), the gun song- no trigger version, i wanna sweat, dreams fall hard, big jacket, knife in the coffee.
How To Leave Town: I like this band a lot, y’all. Yet another one that I couldn’t rank if you made me, because I love it. This album feels like it was made in space. I love the synths and the drums on this record, and I love the themes (again) of isolation, but approached in a more mature way. As much as I’m repeating myself in these reviews, it’s another well realized concept. Many of these songs exactly express feelings that I can’t put words to. Sitting on the New Jersey Turnpike in a traffic jam is listening to America (Never Been). That dizzying bubbly feeling walking home after being with someone you like is You’re In Love With Me. And that feeling of anger at yourself lying on your bed, wondering what you did wrong is I Want You To Know I’m Awake/I Hope That You’re Asleep. These are my interpretations of the songs, and I’m sure these songs mean different things for different people. But the fact that I can say “yeah, no, I know EXACTLY what you mean” feels really special. I think a lot of other fans of CSH can relate to that. The End of Dramamine is also one of the best album openers ever, I’m pretty sure. Another song with a buildup that makes it 100% worth it. Some of the lyrics on only this song are ones I repeat to myself over and over. And Hey Space Cadet (Beast Monster Thing in Space) is one of those songs I wish I’d written. Did I mention how good the cover art on this thing is as well? This album feels like someone who got to the real world and it turns out it’s disappointing as hell. Even though Will points to Teens of Denial as a bildungsroman, this could be seen as one too. I like this one enough I’d be willing to do a track by track analysis on it. Also- I’m not mentioning the actual instrumental parts of these albums enough, other than describing them as garage rock or synth-y. He’s really good at that too. Even the though lyrics are the central point of most of his music, the marriage on this album between them is well done. I could talk about this album for hours. I’m going to stop now because I realize what I’ve been rambling. favorite songs: uh, all of them? the ending of dramamine, kimochi warui (when? when? when? when? when? when? when?), america (never been), hey, space cadet (beast monster thing in space),
Teens of Style: Okay, I mean… This isn’t a BAD album, but… why go listen to this when you could listen to the original recordings? I understand people can be a bit squeamish towards lo-fi records, and if you are, then yeah, it’s good. Personally I like the original recordings of most of these songs. Only song I like better is Something Soon purely for the addition of real drums. I don’t hate this album. It feels moot to me. Maybe it made more sense when Teens of Denial wasn’t out, as an introduction to Car Seat Headrest. But aside from sound quality, if I wanted to make a playlist of my favorite car seat headrest songs I could…do that. I guess I’m being too hard on this album, it is what it is, and that’s quite alright. I also don’t listen to this album too much. favorite songs: something soon
Teens Of Denial: Okay, I’ve already talked a little about this album in the beginning. I know in fan circles it’s thrown around as being “basic”, but it earns its spot in the admittedly intimidating Car Seat Headrest discography. Yes, some of the songs I don’t like. But it also has songs that feel more polished and mature than any of his past work. It feels like the most story-ish album since Twin Fantasy, with rising action and a climate. It has some good long songs that earn their place as some of his best. As much as I love all the other albums by CSH, I would agree with Will when he says this is the best stuff they could play live. It definitely jams, and you can listen to it more casually than his other albums. This is more of a discreet album. You can definitely analyze it, but you don’t feel like you have to. Yeah, it’s definitely his most mainstream album yet. But I don’t find issue in that. Mainstream doesn’t always mean bad. In some ways, Will’s move away from that deeply personal style is necessary. Now that he has a band, and a label, and he is maturing- it gets to a point where relying only on real life can become a crutch. I’m glad that he’s found a way to keep some of it, while still making it a little more guarded than his past albums. favorite songs: vincent, 1937 state park, cosmic hero, the ballad of costa concordia, connect the dots (the saga of frank sinatra).
ON THE DANGER OF MASTERPIECES: PART vi
This is a long post already, but this part is necessary. I appreciate these albums, and think they are works of art in their own right. However, there is something to be said that Will was only a teenager/young adult when he wrote a lot of them. In many ways, you can see him grow up in these albums. I don’t know if I can call them masterpieces, because that is a high bar to set for something you wrote in your early 20s. There is a lot in Twin Fantasy and other of his albums that feels like you can’t critique, because…it’s real. It’s genuine things that have happened to him, it’s raw and it’s emotional. Even though these albums are beautiful, they feel like they were written by someone young. That’s why it connects with a lot of teenagers/young adults. It’s important to realize that this is only the beginning for Will. I worry over people building Twin Fantasy and his other albums up too high. I only say this because I’m empathetic to the fear of never surpassing something you wrote as a teenager.
okay. i have written a lot and you are likely anxious to get to the end of this. “what was the point of me reading that?” , you are asking. “why can’t you decide on if you’re going to capitalize things or not?”, you are asking. “why are you referring to me in the second person?”, you are asking. As for the first question- I’m not entirely sure. I wanted to share my love of something that hopefully you love too, or that you want to now learn about. This band has meant a lot to me in the short year that I’ve listened to them, and I thought I’d document it in this rambling piece. Hopefully this meant something to you. Thanks for reading.