published: 17 /
Erick Mertz reflects on ten of his favourite songs by Car Seat Headrest, the project of Virginia-bred singer-songwriter and lo-fi alternative rock musician Will Toledo
So much of Will Toledo’s origin story comes across like an urban legend.
Think of the pumped up jock, capable of eating an entire meat lover’s pizza in less than six minutes. The cheerleader whose parents spent the summer in France, and threw surreptitious sex and drug parties that no one talked about by September. It’s a story told in a secret language. It’s the trench coat wearing guy who rigged up a Nintendo video game replicator before vanishing into thin air with everyone’s cartridges. It is the mercurial teenager who wrote, recorded and distributed eleven albums on Internet platform Bandcamp over a half-decade and became a bona-fide rock Godhead in the process.
Will Toldedo does not hail from a small town in central Ohio. This would seem too serendipitous even for his legend. He’s from historic Leesburg, Virginia about a half hour from DC. His band name, Car Seat Headrest comes from a far more genuine place than its first precocious impression might foretell. According to myth, Toledo, a music enthusiast throughout his youth, was comfortable recording the instrumental parts of his songs in the home studio. The vocal parts though? Those he recorded in the anonymity of his car.
Why? Because the sound of his own voice made him too damn shy.
We know a lot about Lou Reed. At the same time though, we also know little. This dichotomy places Reed comfortably into a long line of confessional poets, curiously owning one sin while obfuscating another. As a result, we know what Lou Reed wants us to know. And we know what he does not. All that may seem just a little bit convoluted but it is key to understanding Will Toledo.
Only in his mid-twenties, Toledo already fits into the confessional tradition alongside other romantic bowery figures like beat poet Allen Ginsburg, scribes Anne Sexton and Delmore Schwartz, Lou Reed’s doomed teacher. Why name off a list of poets? Because that’s where a fully-fledged Will Toledo arrives on the scene: as a poet.
After the experimentation of his first two or three records, after his ideas were fully explored and he signed to a label. He owes as much to that tradition as he does to Bob Pollard, Pete Townshend and John Lee Hooker.
Car Seat Headrest reminds me that rock is art and should be raw. We can forget that rock was born of R&B and spiritual music; at its ideological core, it aligns more with its disaffected garage and punk offshoots. When I listen to a Car Seat Headrest album, the songs are a coy fusion of rock’s very best and most enduring contrasts: both private and source of anthem, confessional and private, something that is recorded but always in the process of becoming new.
The urban legend that Will Toledo embodies? His is the basement rock auteur that signed on with a label and did not miss a step.
These are the ten tracks of Car Seat Headrest that affirmed my love for the band.
1. 'End Of Dramamine' ('How to Leave Town', 2014')
From a bird’s eye view of Car Seat Headrest’s discography, 'How to Leave Town' is the first polished recording (although not the first collection of killer songs). Perhaps it was moving to Seattle, WA that inspired Toledo (hence the name of the album) but all anyone has to do is listen to the first four to five minutes of bass and guitar interplay, gentle high hat and keyboards to know that getting discovered would not lead to selling out. And a deeper look at the lyrics, we see a songwriter able to turn himself inside out in the search for subject. On the brink of fame and notoriety, Will Toledo was still writing great, memorable songs.
“I need a name for what I’m feeling/so I can start to work on a meaning.”
2. 'Boxing Day' ('Nervous Young Man', 2013)
I’m not ashamed to say that if one LP saved my life then 'Bee Thousand' was it. The thirty-eight minutes of gangbusters garage rock bliss by Guided By Voices was the literal torchlight that guided me from a relatively dark musical phase.
At nearly sixteen minutes in length, 'Boxing Day' is almost, in a single song, one half of what 'Bee Thousand' was as an album. Contained within 'Boxing Day' are a similar number of musical ideas to 'Bee Thousand', but rather than write a beggar’s pocket full of two minutes songs and snippets like Bob Pollard (like we love him for…) Toledo jams it all into a single track; it’s like he forgot to clip off the edges and let everything bleed together. One of the two massive, sprawling kaleidoscope songs on 'Nervous Young Man', 'Boxing Day' spans an impressive host of genres everything from punk, indie-rock, garage and blues.
"If I stacked up all the hours I wasted/I could climb straight to heaven."
3. 'The Gun Song' ('Nervous Young Man', 2013)
Another of the rambunctious epics from 'Nervous Young Man', Toledo spins a bittersweet, rock opera that becomes increasingly melancholy as he presses further into it. At roughly nine minutes, the song crumbles into a noise interlude; at ten, it shifts into a swinging hip, post-modern country ballad, rife with a cavern full of sad revelations; by the time it is finally over, we’re into a cover of 'Down by the River' by Neil Young. It’s a masterpiece that breaks all of the rules, thankfully.
"All I know, is one of us was supposed to kill the other/Isn’t that what they mean when they say ‘lovers’?"
4. 'Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales' ('Teens of Denial', 2016)
This is the song that will appear on secretly sent mix-tapes for the rest of my life. This is a straightforward rocker, Toledo’s first and likely best shot at a crossover but it will probably remain my little secret. Which is perfectly fine by me.
"It’s too late to articulate it/That empty feeling/You share the same fate as the people you hate"
5. 'Stoop Kid' ('My Back is Killing Me Baby', 2011)
This short, four and a half minute song conjures up the early 90’s independent rock boom, when tracks came alive and the damp four-track sound warmed to the basement walls. Built around loose, Tobin Sprout influenced jangle guitars, a bit of nonsense vocal play and raw production that, especially in the chorus, feels patched together with old yarn. The percussion is bare bones but it hardly matters. At times, Toledo’s vocals, especially as the song fades out, produce a series of delicious harmonies that are, for fans of a certain age, nostalgic.
"This city has its share of stairs/And if you stay there, no one cares/these boxes I should probably recycle"
6. 'Plane Crash Blues (I Can’t Play Piano)' ('Nervous Young Man', 2013)
The ragged sadness that oozes from each note on this song is homage to the classic rock that Toledo borrows influence from. It’s Scott Walker. It’s Neil Young on 'Tonight’s the Night'. Fast forward. It’s Thom Yorke on 'Let Down' as he pleads for comfort in a series of riddled images. The way Toledo howls through his transition out of verse into chorus offers a bittersweet view of an emotionally estranged young man as raw, wounded animal. This kind of sullen gorgeousness is intended for play at maximum volume, while double fisted on the steering wheel and screaming bleary eyed into a stony, autumn breeze.
"I’m just cruising through the stop sign/Sorry officer the radio was blowing my mind/They were playing a song/Gone out of tune/I’ll take the rhythm but fuck those blues"
7. '90'('3', 2010)
At his most self-critical, Toledo warns his fans against those first four albums. It was all about the process, he says. As though that is a warding fact.
"I love the process, and 90' is among the first great Car Seat Headrest songs, loud guitars, easy baseline and almost indecipherable lyrics, a la early REM/Guided By Voices: it is the perfect formula for bedroom power pop.
I don’t know. They are practically indecipherable.
8. 'The Drum' ('My Back is Killing Me Baby', 2011)
Off of an album that is cited as the blueprint for material Toledo would record for Matador, the opening track, 'The Drum' brings into full form what becomes one of the signature guitar lines for Car Seat Headrest. It flows and it's expressive, and it absolutely drenched in FM, American radio rock.
While everything crashes around in the mix, which is still raw and delightfully amateur, Toledo bellows about hangovers and guns (each a familiar topic) while making oblique literary references that only he can grasp. The song amounts to a lot of gorgeous, frantic nonsense, and it becomes the clear precedent to all of the back alley magic that will later evolve into clear-eyed bliss on 'Teens of Denial'. Maybe unbeknownst to Toledo (yet perhaps maybe intentionally) he is grabbing a firm hold of a couple of critical traditions in one line, owning a Dadaist’s absurdity and blending it with tweed coat, literary citation. Very cool move.
"The drum gets drunk /The drum reads James Joyce in the drunk"
9. 'Big Jacket' (Version from 'I', 2010)
If you listen to enough of Car Seat Headrest, you can pick out Toledo’s evolving experiments. The first three records are, for the lack of a better guide, sketchbooks. He’s figuring out his songs and developing his lyrical motifs.
What will later appear on 'Nervous Young Man' first appears on his debut, a song about giving everything away; but this is everything to a teen, a fact that hardly matters once you hear his voice. It is hard to imagine this is a suburban kid, dealing with suburban blues because he is so raw and his expression, absolute. His lyrics, a list of things his lover can have, are chilling and they force me to reflect on 'Berlin'-era Lou Reed. These words what he might sing in a hushed voice to one of his story song subjects. Clearly, Toledo is not afraid of stripping himself and his world, bare.
"You can have my cat/As long as you promise to feed him every day/And let him out when he needs it"
10. '(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says That It Isn’t A Problem)' ('Teens of Denial', 2016)
There was a palpable angst in 2015 among hardcore Car Seat Headrest fans when Toledo signed with Sub Pop Records. Perhaps being on a label would smooth out those delightfully rough edges. Would a studio greater than the room at the end of the hall in his parent’s house inhibit his experimentation?
Turns out, any and all of those worries were for nothing. From the first pure garage guitar licks of 'Fill in the Blank' on 'Teens of Denial', his label debut of new material, it’s clear that Car Seat Headrest’s star would not polish too cleanly.
The best song on the record though (which would spur a raucous debate) is this onerously titled drugged out drug trip story meets alt-country farce. It brings to mind every banal memory of doing drugs with a scathing sense of humour. Toledo is not done being cheeky, not done thinking of his parents. He will not stop looking at his own life for song material and he seems only to have sharpened what has become a Morrissey-esque penchant for double entendre.
"Filled with loathing and religious fervour/I laid on my friend’s bedroom floor for an hour/And tried not to piss my pants/And then I saw Jesus"