Will Toledo is a 23-year-old songwriter who sometimes sounds like he’s 30 and sometimes sounds like he’s 17. At all times, he sounds like he needs to unplug his computer and get out of the bedroom in which he presumably wrote most of the songs onTeens of Style, the Matador debut from his solo project-turned-band, Car Seat Headrest. Under that moniker, Toledo has released 11 albums on Bandcamp over the last four years, building up a passionate fanbase even as it became apparent that he was still learning from his mistakes.
Now that he’s signed to Matador, you’d think that Toledo would want to wipe the slate clean and start fresh as the label’s next surefire indie success. But he’s kept the old Bandcamp for posterity, even going so far as to tag it with a self-effacing plea to the music press: “DO NOT LINK THE NUMBERED ALBUMS BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD.” In an online world in which everyone is trying to control every single aspect of their image, there’s something refreshing about a guy who’s willing to leave the uglier parts of his story on the table for scrutiny. Then again, that same ugliness is a big part of what got him here in the first place.
Those who are coming to Car Seat Headrest with a fresh set of ears will have no trouble spotting the influences that fueled the creation of Teens of Style. The album is a compilation that repackages the best of Toledo’s bedroom indie rock from over the years, but it could just as easily be mistaken for a compilation of artists that once appeared on Matador themselves. There’s the droll, meandering vocal delivery of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, a dense whirlpool of guitars à la Guided by Voices, and a strange kind of intimacy that’s reminiscent of early Modest Mouse. Even though he’s got a full band to back him now, Toledo still sing-slurs like he just tossed back a bottle of wine and stumbled into a confessional booth by himself. The results are inspired and cringe-worthy by turns, with enough lightning flashes of wisdom to balance out the rolling thunder of narcissism, teen angst, and 21st century trivialities.
On Teens of Style, Toledo often comes across as a teen who still needs to do some growing up, but his keen sense of wordplay and penchant for profundity suggest that growing up is not a prerequisite for genius. He seems to delight in subverting expectations mid-line, twisting one sentiment around to mean another thing entirely. “I haven’t looked at the sun for so long,” he croons on opening track “Sunburned Shirts”, all while banging out a chord progression that registers as anthemic and even hopeful. It’s all very uplifting, at least until he follows that up with, “I’d forgotten how much it hurt to.”
These tiny gut punches show up everywhere on the album, as does the theme of being suffocated by expanding possibilities. The subject of “Sunburned Shirts” sounds almost afraid to leave his room, like an abused animal who has learned to distrust everything outside his cage. “Something Soon” also evokes feelings of suffocation, albeit with far more urgency. “Heavy boots on my throat/ I need, I need something soon,” Toledo practically screams in the chorus, and each repetition of that vague plea — “I need something” — only underscores how the most desperate desires are oftentimes the least defined.
With that being said, Teens of Style really seems to find itself as soon as “Something Soon” kicks in. The song’s dominant mode is catharsis, and it uses the language of punk to maximum efficiency. Power chords, a huge sing-along chorus, and the general sense of being misunderstood — they’re all there, and they show how effective Toledo can be when he steps out of the bedroom and fully embraces the tropes of rock music. “Times to Die” may go over the deep end by equating the music industry to a mystical religious order, but at least it does so with the right kinds of sonic flourishes. The overlapping vocals in the song’s chorus are truly inspired, and they represent all the voices in Toledo’s head that are just now getting the chance to spill out into the world.
“Spill” is the key word here, because Teens of Style can also be a bit of a mess. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it surely jives with the band’s aesthetic, but a bit more editing might have made the album’s highs feel higher. Several songs overstay their welcome by at least a couple of minutes, with “Strangers” slowly meandering its way into a coda that should have been the central hook and “Los Borrachos (I Don’t Have Any Hope Left, But the Weather Is Nice)” proving nearly as bloated as its title. The one exception is the slow-burning “Maud Gone”, a six-minute heartbreaker that revolves around a single catchy synth line that will stay in your head for days. This tune really warrants the space it gets to unfold, while the others risk leaving the listener exhausted. “I want to talk like Raymond Carver,” Toledo sings at one point, and he’d do well to take that storyteller’s lessons to heart and just get to the point.
Of course, maybe this lack of tidiness is the point. The early 20s are a weird time in anyone’s life, a kind of purgatorial state that seems made for mistakes and experimentation. Teens of Style has plenty of both, but it’s somehow all the more charming for it. This is an album that will grow on you and frustrate you, probably within the span of the same day. The best approach is simply to take it for what it is: a document, like Toledo’s persistent Bandcamp page, of change in its rawest and purest form.