Category Archives: loneliness

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style: Why 42 Is the New 24

I should be too old for this album.

But I was in the car, on my way to Ballard some time in October, and I heard this song on its tin-can-line to my soul, the lo-fi production exactly the right timbre for the low-grade discontent creeping around in my life, just like this bass line lurks around the corners of this song.  And the repetitive, somewhat abrasive synth riff was the bright light in the middle, shaking me out of that driver’s spell, and asking me to listen and to care. And some boy-man was singing, with that kind of resignation 400 yards away from actually feeling bad,  “Maud / now you’re gone / now you’re gah ah ah ah ah ah ah ahn.”

The song was “Maud Gone,” a play on Yeats’s fierce Maud Gonne, the band (really just a singer) was Car Seat Headrest, and the album, I would find, was Teens of Style.

Teens of Style.  Teens.

It might be classic to say “I’m too old for this,” but this is my first mid-life crisis.  So, it’s new for me to say it.

Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest, is actually 23.  Will Toledo is a year out of college.  Will Toledo was just signed by Matador Records, the label of Pavement and Modest Mouse—bands actually my own age.  Will Toledo sings lyrics like this:  “I can’t talk to my folks” and “I want to kick my dad in the shins.”

My dad is dead.  I’ve been out of college 22 years, almost as long as Will Toledo’s been alive.  I find those lyrics painfully young.  But too old or not, I love this album.  I love it.  And I think it’s because it helps me see why 42 is the new 24.

Here’s why:  the sub-heading of Collin Brennan’s article “Why Car Seat Headrest is the Indie Hero We’ve Been Waiting For” is this:

Check.  Check, check, and check.

Isn’t that basically the description of a midlife crisis?  This is the final essay in my triptych on the three albums mirroring my year last year (for parts I and II, see Angel Olsen and Other Lives), and I have two things to tell you about loneliness.  Ok. Three.

Heavy Boots on My Throat / I Need Something Soon

“Something Soon” is a song about the anxiety of not knowing what you want next, but knowing that something needs to happen.  I’ve been in that place for about, oh, two or three years.  Perhaps that’s why I write about the past so much.  In the face of anxieties about my career (the dean wanted to cut my position three weeks ago.  It’s safe.  For now), the possibilities I’m letting go of (marriage, children, home ownership), and the patterns I’m coming to accept (what if it really IS just me forever?  What if I always AM going to be this lazy?), I find it immensely comforting to take what’s already happened and mine it for the insight and intimacy I have difficulty accessing as of late. Or, as Will Toledo puts it, “I was referring to the present in past tense / It was the only way that I could survive it.”  THAT’S a GREAT LINE.

The other lyrics are a list of Wants and Needs:

I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

[ . . . .]
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

Heavy boots on my throat I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
I can’t talk to my folks I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
All of my fingers are froze I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
Only one change of clothes I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
My head is my head is my head is

Oh, but the heavy boots are so different now, at 42.  It’s not so much the pressure from others but your own boots on your own throat.  It’s not that, at 24, you aren’t hard on yourself, but, from what I remember, you have that sense that somehow, you’ll be shown the right way, if only you can find the right something.

But that’s it’s own problem:  I have so many right somethings.  They crowd each other and jockey for space; they whisper unkind things about each other from opposite corners in my head.  In one of my favorite moments in “Something Soon,” Will Toledo talks over himself:

I want to talk like Raymond Carver
(an advertisement cries out)
I want to turn down the goddamn TV
(“He should have gone to Jared’s”)

I tell myself I’m not lazy—I did plenty of worthy things this week.  (“Yes, but you also binge-watched The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries for four hours and drove to yoga, instead of walking.”)  I like how honest I am as a teacher. (“But your evaluations are always split—you need to change somehow.”  “But how?” “If you stopped being so lazy, you’d figure it out.  This is why your job is insecure.”)

Ok, so maybe it’s not so much that there are so many “right things” but rather that there are a lot of opposing tendencies within me:  to accept myself fairly completely while also being, like Will Toledo, “painfully aware of [my] place in the world.”


There’s a Full Moon Every Night / It’s Just Not Always Bright

As I say at the beginning of this essay, I heard “Maud Gone,” my favorite song on Teens of Style, in the autumn.  Autumn is the best teaching quarter, any teacher will tell you:  you are convinced you’re going to be better, the students come back, convinced they’re going to be better.  I had great classes.  Professionally, things seemed good.  But I was about 500 yards away from my heart, which is why I love the tinny detachment and simultaneous hopefulness of this song.

It accepts that maybe something is gone (Maud, in this case), but it has enough distance to wonder “when did our heart stop beating?”  It also wonders how to get a grip on the heavy boots from before—in my case, the sense that a fulfilling career isn’t in bed with you at night, which can turn any reflection into a more existential problem:

When I’m in bed
I’m dead
No one to check my pulse
And so instead
My head
Begs not to be so full
and when I fall
which part of me writes the dream
and which part falls
who’s running the machine?

But it also suggests maybe you need to try something different:

I know there’s a full moon every night
it’s just not always bright
but it’s been so long since I saw the light
maybe I haven’t been looking at the sky

So I did.  I looked at the sky, forgetting something Will Toledo says in another song:  “I hadn’t looked at the sun for so long / I’d forgotten how much it hurts to.” I had an affair—a dark, intense, raw release from my head into my body.  He was so different from me that, at first, I found myself quivering, overly sensitive to his criticisms, which seemed strangely almost like compliments. Everything he liked about me also seemed to be something that drove him crazy:  “You’ve got this bubble around you,” he told me once, “that’s almost . . . fairy-like?  And usually, my instinct with that is to try to poke holes in it.  But I can’t find any holes with you.  I guess that’s who you really are.”

He was driven, fierce, strong, dark, masculine, and hot as fucking hell.  He’s a Scorpio.  Does that help?  It helped me—to know exactly why this bad moon was so difficult but also why it kept a-risin.’  We radiated intensity.  Once, in February, we were buried in each other at the corner table of Tini Bigg’s.  The waitress came over and mentioned she remembered us . . . from November.  “Probably because we couldn’t stop groping each other, which makes it hard to take  a drink order,” he muttered in my ear, as she walked away, and our hands moved towards each other under the table.

But Scorpio was not my boyfriend, which is where the tinny detachment comes in.  He was a lover, and he was not mine.  But he eclipsed all others and I could see no other moons, full and bright or otherwise.  And I would watch him walk out the door, always going back to his other world.  And when he was gone, I would wonder whether it was worth it.  But I also had to think again about how much partner I needed, how much intensity itself could be enough, what my real boundaries were.  He forced me to look again at my heart, and he made it beat.  Hard.  In short, he denied me the bridge:

Sweetheart please love me too long
My heart’s too strong
Love me too long
Sweetheart please let me hold on
To these old songs
I’ve loved too long

And whether you’re 24 or 42, you need to know when to learn new songs.  There is such a thing as holding on just because you’re used to something being there:  old songs, old ideas about what you want, old patterns, old ghosts.  Like the moon.

You Have No Right to be Depressed / You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Like it

I read this morning that whereas the Baby Boomer midlife crisis was about rejecting convention, the Mad Men life they thought they should want, the Generation Xer’s midlife crisis is about agoraphobia:  instead of shrinking opportunities, there are still so many.  And because I haven’t taken up some of the traditional ones (marriage-baby-house-dog), I can see why some might think I am the author of my own crisis, the author now of so many narratives of loneliness and loss.  After the Angel Olsen essay, an acquaintance who has never lived alone in her adult life told me “it sounds like you just really need to learn how to love yourself.”

I want her to listen to Millennial Will Toledo’s new song, “Fill in the Blank.”  You know what he’s so tired of, he tells us?  “Fill in the blank.”  You know what kind of answer he gets when he says this?  “You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”  Will Toledo finds that answer, as do I, irritating.  But he tries to engage with that cliche and acknowledges that, yes, he may not have “seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.”  I want to quote Brennan at length here because Will Toledo and I both get what you’re saying about taking ownership over your own life and want you to know that we mean it, too, when we are ambivalent about that ownership:

Lots of folks would take one look at Toledo and be quick to write him off as a hipster. The songs don’t always help his case in this regard, stuffed as they are with irony and wry cynicism. But anyone who sits down with Car Seat Headrest for a while comes to find that one of the band’s dominant traits is earnestness. Even the ideas that seem silly on the surface (ahem, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”) end up as rousing, tear-jerking anthems that tug on all the right heartstrings.

This is perhaps the most important — and least talked about — aspect of great rock music: the sentimentality that flirts with cheesiness, the absolute conviction that a song can change the world, or at least somebody’s world, for even just a little while. Teens of Denial, on its surface, is the product of a prototypical millennial mindset. “You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” Toledo sings on opener “Fill in the Blank”, a song whose lyrics practically overflow with snark. But undermining those lyrics is a rock beat that straight-up grooves and a squealing guitar melody that wants to be heard over an arena’s loudspeakers.

I love myself plenty.  I’m just trying to answer the ultimate Talking Heads question (“Well, how did I get here?”), without the beautiful house, the beautiful wife, and sometimes, without those markers, it’s even harder to understand what kind of life you’re authoring.  I mostly think this IS my beautiful life.

So, thank you, Will Toledo, for reminding me that wondering aloud about these questions is ok: “I think part of being an artist is remaining vulnerable to human opinion,” he reflects. “You always want to hide away the immaturity with yourself, and I guess for me this is a way of refusing myself that luxury.”

This is me refusing myself that luxury.  2015 was about confrontations and some self-indulgent immaturity and some new maturity and listening to Car Seat Headrest sigh and mumble and scream “you guys got mad skillz / I just got mad.”  And it was boring and peaceful and angry and productive and weird and dark and, sometimes, really, really FUN.  Just like Teens of Style.

Car Seat Headrest’s new album comes out in two days:  Teens of Denial.  I don’t think either Will Toledo or I are in denial about anything.