Sunday, July 1, 2018

Past Greatness: June '18

Welcome to the 19th installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album tackles the inner and outer battles an adolescent must face when transitioning to adulthood in the modern world

Car Seat Headrest | Teens Of Denial
2016 | Indie Rock | Listen

Every generation has that album. An in-the-moment, of-the-moment exposition on the fears, anxieties, and trepidations of adolescents budding into adulthood. Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister, The Strokes' Is This It, examples from the previous three decades. However, with trans-cultural diffusion mushrooming thanks to globalization and multiculturalism, strict identities are splintering. To simplify that statement, remember I Love The..., that VH1 mini-series? Each decade had overarching distinctiveness, one that many could recount with a throng of adages and buzzwords. Because of our continent-bridging inclusiveness, the 2010's seem to be lacking that, which makes it difficult for generational albums to manifest naturally. Various scenes, avenues, influences, and styles sprout up in simultaneous droves, with no one predominant modus operandi for children to follow. More than any modern album I've heard, Car Seat Headrest's Teens Of Denial exemplifies that uncertainty. The ambiguity of being fashionable, the mental gymnastics onset by peer pressure, the startling realization of one's insignificance, all whilst still adjusting to total interconnectivity. That's what lies at the heart of Will Toledo's defiant masterwork, one that wallows in a sea of incertitude.

With all that being said, what's perhaps most impressive about Teens Of Denial is its musical brilliance. One would be remiss - as I once was - to believing this 12-track project was a neatly-packaged, greatest hits compilation. Car Seat Headrest's fuse of up-tempo Indie Rock, straight-laced Power Pop, and artistic ambition that goes against the grain of each, helps give Teens Of Denial the crucial identity needed to stand out amongst the rabble of Indie conformers. The pieces of this can be found all over the record, whether it's the strenuous build-up of 'Vincent,' wherein a single guitar riff conveys passage of elements for the entire first two minutes, or the clever concluding seesaw of 'Drugs With Friends,' where Toledo provides a cyclical conundrum centered on depressing friends and forlorn drug usage. Teens Of Denial is encumbered with craftily contagious moments like this, which isn't a surprise given the two prominent influences escorting the album; The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem. Each outfit, whether it's Julian Casablancas' or James Murphy's, has made their namesake off unforgettable melodies and addicting rhythms, and both - the simple and the complex - unite under Car Seat Headrest's attentive watch.

The idioms of each artist erupt with voracity on 'Cosmic Hero,' a personal favorite but just one of many standouts. On the eight-minute ascension, Toledo borrows the compressed, hollowed out vocal effect from Casablancas, while latching onto Murphy's expansive production tricks to give 'Cosmic Hero' its death-defying weight. The same approach is handled on 'Vincent' and 'Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,' two powerhouses that escalate to concentrated pandemonium meant to illicit Toledo's festering uneasiness. To mention these merits without the attributing songwriting would be of massive disservice to Toledo, as the impassioned cries for answers throughout Teens Of Denial truly adds to the gravity of the situation. Tiny personal triumphs - like trying not to piss his pants ('Drugs With Friends') or making it home safe ('Drunk Drivers') - stand against significant setbacks regarding an unresolved future. All this told through Toledo's earnest, shaky, and at times, snarky personality. That's what makes his approach - combined with Car Seat Headrest's cumbrous walls of sound - iconic: For an adolescent struggling with conformity, it's all too real. 

Right from the get-go, the burden mounts on the outstanding 'Fill In The Blank.' The entirety of Teens Of Denial can be summarized by Toledo's first four lines: "I'm so sick of fill in the blank / Accomplish more, accomplish nothing / If I were split in two I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me." Apathetic self-hatred due to the obstacles encountered whilst transitioning to adulthood. Easy arguments could be made that the late teenage years are the hardest a human will endure, having to grasp a litany of foreign, real-world concepts while learning about an endless stream of burdens your generation will soon undertake. Toledo's realization of this comes during Teens Of Denial's 11-minute peak 'The Ballad Of Costa Concordia,' a modern tragedy that unfurls years worth of repressed emotion to the sinking of a carnival cruise ship. In it, Toledo protests the legion of positive reinforcers by recounting, example after example, of his failures and hardships. Beyond interpolating Dido's 'White Flag' to glorious effect - as he also does with The Cars' 'Just What I Needed' on 'Not What I Needed' - Toledo's showpiece comes moments after in an hysterical spoken word breakdown that confronts every intermediate worry directly. For the immeasurable swarm of adolescents onboard this woeful ride, lines like "how was I supposed to know how to make dinner for myself?" and "I was given a mind that can't control itself" act as agonizing punches to the gut. Toledo's anti-rallying cry of "I give up" in the chorus aims to unite the strained.

Unlike the majority of artistic works that deal with self-loathing due to mounting pressures, Teens Of Denial doesn't feature a twist-of-fate finale that says "it'll be alright." In fact, Car Seat Headrest uses that exact line on 'Cosmic Hero' to mock cherry bullshitters, countering the halfhearted response with a well-placed "fuck you." However, Teens Of Denial does something far more powerful, ending with the melodramatic 'Joe Goes To School.' In it, Toledo takes on the perspective of the faceless adult we've seen demonized throughout the project. Their frail, sympathetic hand reaches out to help, unaware of how to do so. These eight simple lines (where a horse represents a teenager) humanize the de facto antagonizers, associating their concerned look with something cynical adolescents swept up in unknowing fear often forget; the need to love. Re-listening to the album with this newfound perspective offers levelheaded guidance, not blasé disdain. On 'Connect The Dots,' Toledo's mother wishes for her "little boy" to be successful, an avenue, she feels, can't be achieved through music. He rebuttals with the insistently catchy "and we're never gonna never gonna get a job." Even album standout 'Destroyed By Hippie Powers' ironically - or maybe not so - frets over the various traditional values Toledo once held that are now lost thanks to being submerged in the Indie arts scene. His primary thought? "Tell my mother I'm going home."

Teens Of Denial brilliantly expounds on the budding of heads between the old generation and new, respecting each by showing the warmth of the former, the vigor of the latter, and the fallibility of both. Like the aforementioned example in 'Destroyed By Hippie Powers,' there's numerous hidden, perhaps accidental, incidents that reveal Toledo's willingness to accept help. Like most adolescents, it's begrudgingly, but subconsciously allowed. Whether you delight in the authenticity of Toledo's resentful songwriting or applaud the backing production that parallels his future-proof neuroticism, Car Seat Headrest comes equip to offer it all. Like the few generational albums that preceded it, Teens Of Denial acts as a textbook guide to the modern suburban child, illustrating outside what the mental wherewithal resembles inside.

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