Teens of Denial: Music for Nervous Young Men

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

We often don’t consider how true that is. I was raised by my parents who clothed me, fed me and drove me to school each day. I was raised by my friends who took me on day-long bike rides in the summer when we were 12. I was raised by my teachers who told me I had the strength to get through school and lead a fulfilling life. I was also raised by music.

My brain chemistry would have produced a completely different entity if I hadn’t heard The Beatles when I was 4. I’d be unrecognizable if I hadn’t watched every Led Zeppelin live performance on YouTube when I was 13, and my high school diploma would have said “Evan Ringle” on it, but it wouldn’t be the same Evan Ringle if I hadn’t relied on Tame Impala lyrics to get through nerves and high school heartbreak. These artists are responsible for the callouses on my fingertips, and the shape of my prefrontal cortex. They were there for me when I needed them. But perhaps none of them helped raise me as much as Car Seat Headrest did.

Car Seat Headrest’s music was not love at first sight for me. The first time I had heard them was from a recommendation by my high school Latin teacher, who told me that the band’s songwriter, Will Toledo, reminded him of me. After listening to their album Teens of Style, I didn’t catch any similarity. They were sonically different from anything I’d listened to previously. The vocals were deep and incoherent in the mix, the guitars were piercing, and for some reason, songs with brash power chords and raucous drums shared living quarters with ethereal synthesizers. This was not my wheelhouse. I even saw them live when they played before Mac Demarco at Boston Calling in 2017. One year later, besides an interesting song or two, nothing called out to me.

They had just released a new album titled Teens of Denial, which I remember thinking sounded smug and annoying: “These guys think they’re really interesting.” About a month after seeing them perform, I heard the single off that album, which I must have seen them perform without knowing. It was called “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” It was honest, soulful and visceral: “It comes and goes in plateaus, one month later I’m a fucking pro, my parents would be proud.” The singer’s lament of his inability to remain emotionally content took me in along with its jangling chord progression. Its transformation into a brawling, blistering symphony knocked me out with the continuous, pleading line, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” I had never heard catharsis like this in a song. Teens of Denial became so central to my psyche that I practically orbited it.

Much of my attraction toward the music stemmed from the lyrical content of the songs. Lines like, “I find it harder to speak when someone else is listening” in “Vincent” and “If you really want to know how kind you are, just ask yourself why you’re lying in bed alone” in “Cosmic Hero” made me wonder if Will Toledo had taken my pulse before he wrote this album. I’d blast the song ”1937 State Park” as loud as I could in my car, and when I sang the words, “I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice, my pain is my own,” they felt like my own words. It’s my personal interpretation that Teens of Denial is an album about broken people looking for redemption. It’s fair to say that at that point in my life, I was that person. But when I was at my most vulnerable – feeling like the remnants of a meteorite –

Car Seat Headrest welcomed me with open arms: “Hello my friend, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time. We have reason to believe that your soul is just like ours.” This line in “Not What I Needed” gave me comfort, community and the reminder that I’m not the only one out there feeling alone.

I got to see them for a second time in the fall of 2018. They were playing at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, and I went with some friends who loved them as much as I did. A little more than a year later from when I indifferently saw them play at Boston Calling, here I was seeing them again, a different person from the last time, much to their credit. The energy they put out on stage turned into pure adrenaline once it spilled into the crowd, and every song I sang melted into the voices of the crowd around me. It wasn’t even music at that point.

After that show, I noticed in the weeks following that I wasn’t listening to them as much as I used to. They weren’t my first choice to listen to as I drove to school each morning, and they weren’t even a consideration during late nights on my way home from work. It’s hard to comprehend how such a powerful influence can dissipate so quickly for a person, but I think their dissolution from my life acted as a bookend for me. They were my guiding force for a year. They offered me help when I needed it, but I didn’t need their guiding hand anymore. I had gotten better and had found a way out of the hole that they had kept me company in. In many ways, that show was my farewell to them.

Car Seat Headrest changed me in irreversible ways. My voice, my songwriting and the way I listen to music are forever different because of them. They gave me empathy, intensity, and hope when I needed it, and they inspired me to record and release my own music, no matter how limited my resources were. I continue to make music in the spirit of Car Seat Headrest, along with all the other artists who held my hand through the most important parts of my life. Music simply isn’t a good enough word to describe it.

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