Diss tracks aren't quite as storied in indie rock as in hip-hop (remember Pavement's R.E.M analysis on "Shady Lane" B-side "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence?" No?) but they crop up here and there. Car Seat Headrest's Will Toledo knows a thing or two about them. The story goes that, at age seventeen, the nascent songwriter tried to shop his music project Nervous Young Men to Durham's Merge Records.
When Merge didn't bite, he responded with an acidic piss-take demo called "Fuck Merge Records," featuring a chorus that droned, "No unsolicited demos, no unsolicited demos." The fragment eventually morphed into "Times to Die," which made it onto Toledo's 2015 LP, Teens of Style, released on Matador Records.Though juvenile, the amusing demo's mixture of unfiltered catharsis and sarcastic wit hints at why Toledo's music is so revered by indie types in 2017. In a rock landscape that is increasingly self-aware and painstakingly slavish to throwback signifiers, critics have touted Toledo as the heir to Matador's nineties sound. With Car Seat Headrest, he disassembles and re-collages the scrappy rock aesthetic and obtuse, literate storytelling that made Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices household names. And to his credit, unlike so many other 2010s bands that make similar guitar-driven efforts, Toledo demonstrates a songwriting proficiency that is genuine, and he occasionally avoids treating the classic Matador catalog as holy scripture. Few others could write a millennial satire number like "Not What I Needed," a song about insidious marketing algorithms that includes a verse about William Onyeabor, and make the whole song package work. Is Car Seat Headrest interesting in 2017 though? The answer is, well, kind of.
Depending on which rare or unreleased material you count as canon, the Car Seat Headrest discography spans some thirteen records, and with each release Toledo has presented a new iteration of himself. Perhaps his shining achievement is 2016's Teens of Denial, a ripper of a record that speaks both to insular "deep reading" lo-fi aficionados and conventional rock fans who ignored his previous dozen records. It shines brightest lyrically, a few songs at a time. But the record is seventy minutes long, and several of its songs stretch past seven minutes, so it's easy to lose focus in minute eight of an eleven-minute song.
The record burrows into Toledo's established set of songwriting topics: mental illness, social anxiety, alcoholism, God, narcissism, lowbrow pop culture. Toledo spins intricate tales of self-absorption: in chemicals, biblical language, and internet porn, usually spiked with a healthy dose of sardonic humor and upbeat rock instrumentation. With a laconic Jonathan Richman affect on "Cosmic Hero," he sings, "I will go to heaven/You won't go to heaven/I will go to heaven/I won't see you there!" Elsewhere, on "The Battle of the Costa Concordia," he borrows and recasts a whole verse from Dido's "White Flag," singing, "I'm not going down with this shit, I give up!"
Of course, heavily referential postmodern indie is nothing new. In that regard, Toledo is smart enough to know when his jokes have worn thin. His songs get indulgent, but you never get the sense that he's irritatingly self-aware or thinks he's the funniest person in the world. Being a rung above Father John Misty in 2017 isn't much, but it's something.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Easy Rider."