Desperation is rarely a positive quality, but armed with a guitar and a fractured howl, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo contorts it into a full-fledged talent.
If writing sad songs is complicated, then writing flat-out desperate songs comes with equal baggage, yet twice the dignity at stake. Confessional songwriting sees plenty of critical praise for its bravery, though its success usually hinges on a kind of honesty that elicits understanding. Car Seat Headrest’s “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” does not do that. It offers neither perspective, nor composure, as Toledo’s alter ego debates whether or not to drive drunk. Nearly everything sounds unredeemable, and yet, the song is one of my favorites so far this year.
From the safe distance of a persona within a concept album (the upcoming Teens of Denial), Toledo gets away with exploring the track’s delicate subject matter and catastrophic emotional territory because of his nuanced songwriting. The song’s narrator doesn’t pretend to have a grip. He doesn’t angle for pity or even understanding; instead, he pushes back against both out of self-disgust. Recognizing that scraps of credibility can be salvaged by admitting that you’ve messed up, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” catches him in a moment where he doesn’t have much left to lose, so his broken confessions wind up feeling like a step in the right direction. We never get a real moment of triumph, or even any assurance that he’ll stay off the road that night, but all the elements that make the track unsettling are the same ones that make it so powerful. Toledo’s uncompromising approach to a stomach-turning narrative feels like as much of a win as any desperate song could ask for.
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