“I don’t think it’s possible to make art that makes sense to people if you don’t spend some time doing normal things,” Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo wrote earlier this week in response to an anonymous Tumblr fan question (echoing David Foster Wallace’s now-infamous quote to David Lipsky about treasuring his “normal-guyness”). To both Wallace and Toledo’s work, establishing a connection with the everyman was/is of particular importance — for Wallace, it served as counter-ballast against his notoriously conceptual, often intentionally-daunting, MFA-world tendencies; for Toledo, who is prone to fourteen-minute, introspective monologues, it allows his audience an in via empathy and connection.
The Seattle-based Toledo is prolific — How To Leave Town is his eleventh release under the Car Seat Headrest moniker, of which nine have been full-lengths (HTLT is listed as an EP but clocks in at over an hour, a much longer runtime than most LPs). But while many of his high-output contemporaries churn out hundreds of two-minute lo-fi pop songs, Toledo takes the opposite approach, recording tracks which regularly exceed ten minutes and feature dramatic dynamic shifts over drawn-out, multi-part structures. That Toledo has built such a dedicated fanbase over the years, who have followed his hefty release schedule devotedly, is a testament to the aforementioned ability to connect deeply with an audience. This is partly due to the “normal-guyness” aura Toledo consciously attempts to keep in touch with in his songwriting, as well as his frequent attempts to interact with his audience outside of his music (such as on Tumblr), a presence which obscures the traditional boundaries between artist and audience, soliloquy and dialogue, self-expression and conversation.
Toledo’s tendency towards anxious self-analysis, as well as the distinct echoing on the vocal lines (which creates a cavernous aural headspace for his words to bounce around in, like the inside of a skull), might invite comparisons to the music of Syd Barrett. In Toledo’s case however, the introspection seems significantly more self-aware of its own inherent egotism; he sings on opener “The Ending of Dramamine,” “I think about myself / care about myself / I only care about myself.” When the record shifts its focus outward, to first-name-basis characters and cultural figures, the critique can be even more brutally cynical. On stand-out “Kimochi Warui,” Toledo sings of reading Brian Wilson’s biography and learning the “truth”: that Wilson’s “father never loved him / and the band just wanted money / and Dennis was an alcoholic / who drowned looking for treasure.” That track — “Kimochi Warui” — makes strong use of pop structure, with spoken-sung verses contrasted with soaring, melodic choruses; when Toledo sings on a later refrain “and I am torn between / trying to be a better man / and trying to accept the man I am” the harmonies take on a Panda Bear quality (a sort of indirect Brian Wilson reference, if you like).
(“Kimochi Warui” is also host to another one of Toledo’s explorations of normalness: part of what is so disappointing to him about learning the Beach Boys’ backstory is not that the band has economic priorities but the fact that these priorities reflect, in Toledo’s eyes, that the Beach Boys are “just like every other human” rather than some heroic cast of figures he can worship. It’s a lyrical move which solidifies both his (Toledo’s) and his audience’s normalness, and, accordingly, their connection via normal-guyness: if Brian Wilson, one of the most eccentric public minds of the twentieth century, is just a regular guy who’s overly “dependent on social acceptance,” then everyone must be.)
Maybe the record’s greatest shortfall is the hit-or-miss quality of the album’s middle section; since these tracks follow the incredibly high-caliber first half hour, their brief lapse in quality sticks out all the more sorely. “You’re In Love With Me” makes some odd stabs at hokey-pokey-meets-pop-psychology that mostly fall flat (“just take it to the left brain / shake it to the right brain / try to get lost / somewhere in the middle brain”) before going off on a long dream-tangent where Barack Obama visits a birthday party. Sixth entry “America (Never Been)” begins by amusingly pointing out how small America is (you can drive across it in “four days if you really wanted”), a refreshing perspective given the incessant “America is hard to see” / America-as-vast-unconquerable-landscape taken to any and all USA-themed subject material. But the song also features one of the strangest musical moments of the record, a bizarre hip-hop breakdown just before the two-minute mark that becomes a off-putting backing track for Toledo’s vocals.
By the eighth track though — “is this dust really from the Titanic?” [sic] — HTLT has already started making a late-quarter comeback, sporting wry, observational spoken word over tonic chords (though the song can sometimes sound a bit too much like the product of a deep love for White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground). Album-closer “Hey Space Cadet,” meanwhile, despite starting with the kind of Francis Ha-brand, early-adulthood angst (“It is 2014 and I have no idea what is going on in my life”), quickly transforms into one of the record’s most beautiful tracks, a slow-burning quasi-crooner saturated with crushing emptiness and emotional distance: when Toledo sings on the chorus, “Hey, space cadet / you can’t hang out with your friends / even when you are with them,” it’s oppressively heartbreaking. And so it goes with the album as well: a piercing, gorgeously-wrought release with serious emotional staying power.