The opening chorus on “Fill In The Blank” sets the subject, tone, and instrumental atmosphere for the rest of the sprawling album.
You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it / haven’t seen enough of this world yet / but it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
This reads like Morrissey, and the music sometimes feels like a throwback to The Smiths’ style of devastating emotion delivered via sweetly melancholic melody. Here, band leader/songwriter Will Toledo’s words and music conjure an image that aligns perfectly with the album’s title “Teens of Denial”. Sometimes the lyrics — like the ones on “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” — probably the best song on the album — read like a mother and son’s conversation transcript on their worst night together. Sometimes the lyrics read like snippets of conversations you hear between kids too high on themselves; kids who speak so loudly in a coffee shop they must know they’ve created a show. Sometimes the music is as cinematic as a movie score. Particular parts of “Costa Concordia” and others like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, “1937 State Park”, and “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” make themselves serviceable to the kind of HBO credit-cuts its series use to create intense drama.
The best aspect of this album is it feels like a peek into Will Toledo’s mind, and so for those who don’t know him — the majority of us — it becomes a character study. He makes us hear words and see images we wish we didn’t, and by selling each piece to us in catchy songs wrapped snugly in thorny riffs, a wash of distortion, and decorated with horns, forces himself into the company of Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana — not Nevermind, more Bleach and In Utero).
Like HBO’s Girls, this album will either resonate with or alienate a lot of Toledo’s own generation. He’s about 24, and he dredges up both relics of the Millennial childhood, and this generation’s parents’ young adulthood. I can give you two examples. Part way through “Costa Concordia”, just before Toledo delivers a hard monologue on responsibility as a young person growing up, he sings a few lines of Dido’s “White Flag”. Earlier on the album, during the appropriately named “Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed” he ends the song by covering everything in The Car’s “Just What I Needed” until just before the chorus hits. These snippets feel like well-worn patches transferred onto a new leather jacket — one that I assume he shrugs on and off carelessly, if his posturing carries any truth in it. Finally, continuing in the vein of Toledo’s work to try and illuminate this generation’s issues, here’s the the mournful chorus — and then lyric from the verse that follows — in “1937” State Park”.
I didn’t want you to hear / that shake in my voice / my pain is my own. / And when the cops shook me down / I cried walking home / I cried walking home.
Verse lyric that follows:
You and me are connected now / we were in one photograph and we don’t even look happy
Is there a better representation of the generation that embraced Facebook?
Lastly, I want to point out that there’s a lot to unpack both in Teens of Denial‘s music and its lyrics. It’s not all so real you’ve got to look away. There are so many metaphors this is a novel. Toledo’s writing style grapples with itself. In one way, he presents images so clearly and honestly I imagine he followed his group of friends around with his voice memo app on and then transcribed the best he heard. In another way, he takes metaphors and runs with them. While half of “Costa Concordia” might be a family drama, the other half documents the titular ship’s voyage. In a third way, he likes big phrases, ones that you hear in arenas, or see printed on billboards. He ends phrases with, “Don’t worry, baby”.
For me, the way the styles grapple makes for an interesting listen, if here and there a little indulgent. Some cuts wouldn’t hurt. There are only four (full) songs shorter than five minutes on this 12-song album, but if you like what you hear you might be thankful instead of drained it takes this lumbering machine of a world so long to shut down.