Will Toledo is a bit of a wunderkid in the pop-punk music scene of the last few years, having already released a daunting eleven self-produced albums, which he released through Bandcamp. He’s 23 years old and it is already likely that this album, his first after signing to indie vets Matador Records and recorded with a full band, will catapult him from his already large and enthusiastic online fan following into the larger and more public spotlight. Teens of Denial is proof that the talent isn’t just there, existing, but also that he’s a voice worth welcoming into the scene with welcome arms.
“You have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough at life yet”
The first song on the album “Fill in the Blank” in this case is also one of the strongest, not only offering the catchiest hooks but the deepest, most unsung message-that we, as young people, are actually allowed to feel and not be ridiculed about it. Novel, right? There’s the assumption that when you’re young, particularly in your teens, that while you might be dealing with a tidal wave of emotions at any given moment, they don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. That because they aren’t dealing with “real life” yet they don’t have any real reason to be depressed.
It’s a ridiculous concept which Will Toledo sings about with passion. Instead of joining the ever growing, rallying chorus of those who say teens have it easy or, on the flip side, need to fight back against figures of authority, he’s instead very simply saying that it’s okay to feel something, that you’re feeling are significant and valuable.
It’s a theme carried throughout the rest of the album that, while experimental, never quite hits the high energy that “Fill in the Blank” kicks off the record with. Add to it the spacey, guitar breakdown at the end and it’s an instant hit for the artist and shows him fully embracing the higher end production that makes the song sound more full than almost any others in his already vast catalog.
The album certainly isn’t without its technical flourishes, which we bear witness to immediately following the ending notes of the intro with “Vincent”. Placing a song over four minutes in the second position on any album is a gamble as there’s always the possibility of losing the momentum established by the opener. Puncture that with “Vincent” being instrumental for 2:40 mins and there’s an increased chance of listeners to become distracted. It may not be the strongest song on the album, but it’s worth celebrating for its ambition, even if it’s easy to start forgetting it’s playing by the midway point.
One of the biggest draws Will Toledo has imbued in Car Seat Headrest is their masterful use of lyrics. Offering insight and poetic cynicism to all manners of subjects, Teens of Denial boasts some of the best lyrics of the recently graduated English major’s already impressive career. Some of the best come from “(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (Bust Says This isn’t a Problem), with “I’m freaking out in my mind/in a house that isn’t mine” and “afraid of the cops when I was outside and my friends when I was inside” hit that sweet spot of graceful, goofy, paranoia that comes along (presumably) with getting high with friends, and a frank look at a historically “uncool” way of addressing doing drugs. Another obvious highlight of the album is the constantly unpredictable and mounting to a crescendo“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia.” An eleven minute monster that showcases everything the band does well, it even incorporates lyrics from a Dido song that puts the previous standard of Dido samples to shame.
Earthy in tone and heavy on the atmosphere, Teens of Denial may not reach the band’s previous great heights (aside from its opener) but there’s a catchy and long drive worthy quality to the album that makes it easy to play on repeat. Great still is the notion that this is just the beginning for Toledo (yes, everyone, even eleven albums in) and he’s already this innovative and already has this much depth and humor to his lyricism. Conceptual, playful and even rousing at times, Teens of Denial is a perfect example of how to shameless worship the indie gods of the 90’s while still making something that sounds unique, fresh, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrates the sound of an artist hitting their stride and making real and significant progress.