When Car Seat Headrest released its breakthrough LP, Teens of Denial, in May, the indie band’s 24-year-old singer-songwriter Will Toledo seemed for many to arrive as an overnight sensation. Signed to Matador Records in 2015, Car Seat Headrest quickly released its label debut, Teens of Style, that fall. What many people didn’t know was that Teens of Style was a kind of greatest hits album, collecting re-recorded versions of songs that Toledo had written years earlier and posted on Bandcamp. With Teens of Denial, Toledo streamlined his music, producing the most accessible and pop-oriented Car Seat Headrest album to date. It’s an inviting though not wholly representative entry point for the band’s voluminous back catalogue, which includes 11 other albums posted online since 2010.
Those albums haven’t been explored or discussed much since Teens of Denial emerged as 2016’s best indie-rock LP. But for those bowled over by Toledo’s prodigious talent, Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp records offer fascinating insight into a young artist rapidly developing a signature style. On Teens of Denial, Toledo’s command of rock songwriting is impressive — he’s equally capable of writing punchy, straight-forward grabbers like “Fill in the Blank,” as well as sprawling epics like the anthemic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” in which long, Dylanesque verses unfold for minutes at a time before a chorus finally arrives to deliver a big emotional payoff.
As a lyricist, Toledo is just as versatile, freely co-mingling bracing confessionals with literary flourishes and trenchant record-geek references. A Car Seat Headrest song often reads like a short story on the page, though on record it comes off more like a series of intimate, conversational asides, due in part to Toledo’s detached, sardonic vocals.
After investigating Toledo’s back catalogue, it’s sort of amazing to discover that Teens of Denial, while undeniably an important record in his career, might not be Toledo’s greatest work. There are at least two albums, 2011’s Twin Fantasy and 2014’s How To Leave Town, that rival it, and several others that aren’t far behind. What’s more incredible is that you can already see distinct periods in Toledo’s career — the relatively conventional tunesmith of Teens of Denial is a far cry from the more volatile diarist of Twin Fantasy or 2012’s Monomania. And this evolution has largely been a conscious calculation for Toledo, whose proclivity for self-analysis suggests an artistic maturity that’s well beyond his actual age.
Fortunately for those who love Teens of Denial and Teens of Style, there are dozens more worthy songs to enjoy. But where to start? And how do those albums fit into the larger story of Car Seat Headrest? This is a guide to Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp albums, with commentary from Toledo himself.
1, 2, 3, 4 and Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written on Them (2010)
Toledo posted the first Car Seat Headrest album, 1, on Bandcamp in May of 2010. Three more Car Seat Headrest albums — titled 2, 3, and 4 — were released at a rate of once per month for the reminder of the summer. Unsurprisingly, Toledo’s songs at this time were raw and unformed; he wasn’t even writing tangible lyrics, preferring an improvisational approach inspired by Michael Stipe of R.E.M.
Later on, Toledo would be much more deliberate about piecing songs together into album-length statements; for Teens of Denialhe spent two years writing songs, rejected reams of strong material that he felt didn’t fit the LP’s concept. But back in 2010, after recording several albums with his high school band, Nervous Young Men, Toledo’s initial concept for his new solo project was simply “recording songs as quickly as possible and then once I had enough, putting an album out.” Incredibly, Toledo had enough songs left over for an outtakes collection, Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written On Them, which caps this era.
Will Toledo: It was totally the process back then to have no over-arching concepts but just to record, and then every month it was a new numbered album. That was starting at the end of high school and then right up until I went to college, those were the first four records. It was interchangeable in that sense, because they were all recorded in that brief time frame.
The heart of it was that a lot of [the songs] really didn’t have lyrics. It was just me Michael Stipe-ing it, singing whatever phrase came to mind. A lot of the time when I’d write songs, I’d start with the lyrics and write music around it. Car Seat Headrest was meant to be the opposite approach where I was just kind of jamming music on the computer and building stuff up as organically as possible without thinking about it. R.E.M. was a factor. Jandek was also a factor. I mean, Jandek has lyrics but they’re also fairly stream-of-consciousness stuff.
I got bored of it, I didn’t think that it was the best way to serve these songs by not having legitimate lyrics, and I liked writing lyrics. I don’t know, maybe college helps. I was then English classes and stuff, and definitely by Twin Fantasy I was full-on in literary mode.
My Back is Killing Me Baby (2011)
Toledo’s sixth release as Car Seat Headrest immediately stands out as the the album that spawned the bulk of Toledo’s Matador debut, Teens of Style. Five songs from that LP originally appeared on My Back is Killing Me Baby, including one of Toledo’s finest songs, “Something Soon.” But if My Back now seems like a turning point in Toledo’s career, it has benefitted from some retrospective pruning.
Will Toledo: That record didn’t start out as My Back is Killing Me Baby, it started out as 5. After the first four [albums], I went to college and obviously wasn’t able to keep up making a full album every month. The first semester of college, I recorded and put out an EP called Sunburned Shirts. I started working on other tracks for 5, [and] then I put out 5 later in the year. 5 got featured in a blog that was relatively minor but at the time was one of the biggest things I’d been in at the time. I just decided that if more people are going to be [hearing] it, I’d rather it be a collection of my strongest work, so I ended up combining the EP with the record and taking out the weaker tracks. They ended up on Little Pieces of Paper. I guess Little Pieces of Paper had actually been put out before 5 but thanks to Bandcamp it was an easy process to just add those tracks on and then re-sequence 5 and re-title it as well.
In retrospect, it did become the one release where it definitively stepped up a notch, but it was more of a gradual process at the time.
Twin Fantasy (2011)
For many long-time Car Seat Headrest fans, Twin Fantasy remains Toledo’s best album. It’s certainly the most overwhelming, as well as the most ingeniously constructed, LP in Car Seat Headrest’s catalogue. A song cycle about a troubled romantic relationship between a depressed undergrad and an older man, Twin Fantasy is thick with metaphors – derived from Mary Shelley and aesthetic theory, among other sources — about the dangers of aligning yourself too closely with another person who you might not know as well as you believe.
As bracingly personal as Twin Fantasy appears to be, Toledo also was eager to show-off his preternatural understanding of rock history and songwriting, inserting various asides into the lyrics that comment on the songs as they’re unfolding. For instance, early on in “Bodys,” Toledo deadpans, “Is it the chorus yet? No. It’s just a building of the verse / So when the chorus does come, it’ll be more rewarding.” At the end of another highlight, “Nervous Young Inhumans,” Toledo goes on a long tangent about Shelley’s influence on the song, like a filmmaker embedding his own director’s commentary into the closing credits.
The most stunning track on Twin Fantasy is the 12-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” a harrowing psychodrama that recalls how the narrator “pretended to be drunk when I came out to my friends” before exploring the fantasizes he now has about murdering his boyfriend. Long, exploratory songs composed of epic narratives and multiple musical movements would become a staple of Toledo’s work from now on.
Will Toledo: Definitely my main influence for working out these longer songs [was] Pink Floyd, who I listened to a lot in middle school [and] high school. They had honed such a craft where they could write a 10 minute song or a 15 minute song, it didn’t seem like it mattered. It wasn’t about the length, it was about where it was going. It always did feel like it was going somewhere. I was lucky to have that knowledge of that band when I was making music.
I can remember just walking around Williamsburg, sort of completing how all of the parts [of “Beach Life-in-Death”] were going to go together. That was already a long shot off from how Car Seat Headrest started — I wasn’t thinking about music unless I was literally working on it. Planning out “Beach Life-in-Death” and working on it was definitely where the palette of the album took place, where it was going to be this sort of carefully crafted thing that reflected a larger plan, not just a collection of songs.
That must have been the first Car Seat Headrest record I conceived as a full record and wrote that way. It was intended, even at the time, to be showing off the best of what I could do, basically. The Nervous Young Men stuff, those records did have a little bit of coherency in that way. I think there were some very simple concepts, the first records I was making, that were contained in that way. For Car Seat Headrest, Twin Fantasy was the first album where I came back to that approach and actually made a record as good as I wanted it to be.
The final part of what Toledo refers to as a “triptych” of albums — with My Back is Killing Me Baby and Twin Fantasy — about the same relationship, Monomania was another significant source of material for Teens of Style. It also shares a name with a Deerhunter album, though Toledo’s record came out nine months earlier. “That’s my favorite Deerhunter record now, so it’s all water under the bridge,” he says.
Will Toledo: Monomania is the break-up record, Twin Fantasy is the relationship record. I was writing [Twin Fantasy] at the time of the relationship. It definitely addresses a specific intersection of relationship, courtship and art. The record served at times as part of that courtship. At the end it was a death sentence for it.
What I liked about the word “monomania” was sort of the pun, as far as making music was concerned — stereo and mono. If you listen to “Los Barrachos” and then “Souls”, you have “Los Barrachos” end and then at the beginning of “Souls,” it plays “Los Barrachos” backwards in mono.
I was heavy into Leonard Cohen starting probably around Twin Fantasy and then more or less continuously since then. It was the earlier stuff at first. There’s Songs of Love and Hate, which I really liked. The first record, I really liked. Actually, during Monomania, I was listening a lot to Death of a Ladies’ Man, which is a much weirder record, a lot more intense in a lot of ways. I think that [informs] Monomania — it gets pretty raw and intense at times.
Starving While Living (2012)
One of the best songs on Monomania is “Overexposed (Enjoy),” a hooky electro-pop song that departs from Car Seat Headrest’s lo-fi indie-rock sound. Toledo extrapolated the sound of “Overjoyed” into an entire EP of synth-driven songs, while plumbing his love life for inspiration.
“OK, so I’ve been reading all the sex blogs, and they all talk about how OK it is to be gay and straight and bisexual and asexual and have sex however you like,” Toledo talk-sings on the lead-off song, “It’s Only Sex.” But I don’t care about hundreds of hypothetical people and their hypothetical sex deals, I care about me, and my sex deal! What about my problems?”
Will Toledo: I’m more into the production of that song than the lyrical content. That’s a song that I would not want to play live. I think that it is inferior lyrically. The primal reaction is embarrassment. Part of it is it being personal, but it also feels like a failure if I’m embarrassed about a song. It’s a failure on behalf of the song to not be good enough to prevent that embarrassment.
I had just gotten Logic and was finding my feet on that. These songs, they started out as experiments in the program and they have a distinct electronic feel to them. I think I’d started work on Nervous Young Man, but I knew that it wouldn’t be finished for a while. I probably wanted to put this out to appease people in the meantime.
I haven’t listened to it in a while. I think it’s got some interesting stuff on it. I always like not listening to a record for a while, and then kind of go back to it. I think it holds up. I feel like I was going to put “Reuse the Cels” on Teens of Style. It didn’t work out for some reason, but that’s always been one of my favorite Car Seat Headrest songs. I wish that I’d been able to produce it just a little bit cleaner and that it had been a huge radio hit and gone number one.
Nervous Young Man (2013)
Possibly the most ambitious Car Seat Headrest album, Nervous Young Man was conceived as a conceptual greatest hits album made-up almost entirely of new material. The LP’s 20 songs were intended to reflect the arc of a career — you can hear where Toledo has been, as well as detect hints of where he might be going. While the album title seems to refer to Toledo’s pre-Car Seat Headrest band, only three songs actually derive from that group. The original Nervous Young Men albums are otherwise difficult to track down.
Will Toledo: I took that [Nervous Young Men] Bandcamp down, I think, shortly after I got signed. That stuff is a little too early for me to want to be part of the official story. I’m sure someday I’ll put them out again, but I think the early material out now is more than enough for people.
Most of the stuff on Nervous Young Man was new at the time. “Boxing Day” was older, that was one of the Nervous Young Men songs. At the time, I thought it was the best song I’d written. That was mid-high school. The last song, “Knife in the Coffee,” as an older song. Oh, then “Big Jacket” was an older song, too, but it looks like those are the only three.
I grew up listening to older bands, so a lot of times my first experience of the band was through a greatest hits compilation. Nervous Young Man takes on some of the aspects of that — I wanted it big and long and to be a double album and [have] as much variety as possible between songs, just going a lot of different places with it. Even though 90 percent of the material is new, it was written to be all over the place.
I have a complicated relationship with that record. I think a lot of the songs on it are excellent. [But] overall, I do feel like the conceptual nature of it outweighed the artistic merit of the thing. It definitely could have had songs cut out of it and it would be stronger for it, probably.
How To Leave Town (2014)
While writing for Teens of Denial, Toledo took songs that didn’t feel right for his first major mainstream record and slotted them into How To Leave Town, which actually came out a year and a half earlier. While Teens of Denial is poppier and less explicitly personal than his Bandcamp albums, How To Leave Town feels like the ultimate refinement of Toledo’s early, self-lacerating style.
The dark tone of How To Leave Town is set by the menacing “The Ending of Dramamine,” which opens with an extended, mechanical vamp that recalls David Bowie’s “Station to Station.” (Toledo would eventually interpolate snippets of “Station to Station” when performing “The Ending of Dramamine” live.) Along with “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “The Ending of Dramamine” epitomizes Toledo’s talent from constructing long songs that build dramatic tension by withholding a chorus or some other emotional pay-off for several minutes.
Will Toledo: For me, a song is supposed to sort of climax. It’s supposed to work the same way that a narrative does in a story, where the climax is 80 percent of the way through the song, basically. A lot of the pop records — stuff like “California Girls” or “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees — those have the repeating chorus, but it was always sort of the last one that would get me interested, because they would always sort of put the emphasis right at the end of the song. Maybe I was listening to it differently than a lot of listeners would, but that’s why I would listen through to the end of the song. If the song’s best trait is the chorus and the chorus comes in a minute through, then there’s no real reason for me to continue listening past that point.
There’s a sort of emotional specificity in the earlier records which is traded out in Teens of Denial for making something a little more universal. For a long time I’ve been moving away from the Plastic Ono Band/primal scream sort of writing to a more songwriter-ly fashion, where the focus is on crafting the art rather than getting the emotion out. The emotion is a large pat of the art, but ultimately what I’m concerned with is making something that works as art. I think that means withdrawing a little bit.
I very rarely write a song just on its own. I’m always kind of thinking about its context and if it’s going to be on the album, how is it going to fit in? That’s one of the reasons why Teens of Denial took so long for me to write. It was about two years before it was done because I was generating a lot of material but I wanted a certain aesthetic for it and it took me a while before I had enough pieces that it could really feel coherent in that way.
For me [How To Leave Town] reads like basically a B-sides/outtakes collection but sort of conceptually so, not just that literal thing. A lot of the times, to me, a collection of outtakes that a band puts out from a certain era will be more interesting as an album listening experience than the album itself.