I’m listening to Car Seat Headrest’s “Sober-to-Death”/”Powderfinger” mash-up and–I–just–love them so much. I can’t get over what a beautiful mixture of sounds the whole thing is–the injection of folk americana Civil War mythos into “Sober-to-Death”, one of the most self-indulgent and depressing songs off Twin Fantasy, turning the whole thing into something universal, legendary, American. As American as Edward Hopper paintings, or lonely gas stations, or 24-hour diners. Or prairies, or young men with guns, or colonial plantation houses. In How to Leave Town, Toledo claimed that he’d “never been” to America, but that alienation from one’s own country also similarly strikes me as quintessentially American. The transformation of the individual story into national mythos–a universal feeling–it’s these kinds of things that make me feel American, or feel nostalgic for a dream America. The same way I felt while reading about the Trace Italian in John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, the same way I sometimes feel while listening to the McElroy brothers’ podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me”. The feeling that there’s some long lost part of me that grew up in America, and still remembers all the state names. Lost America, dream America, America as collective memory, America as a universal collective dream a la Freud…
A nervous young man in the backseat of his parents’ car, parking it in various public parking lots (as the etiological legend of Car Seat Headrest goes), and recording his vocals there into his laptop, because he can’t bring himself to record at home where he’s young enough to still be living with his parents, and singing about a disintegrating relationship. This young man alone in his parents’ car singing to himself, “we were wrecks before we crashed into each other.” A young man alone in his parents’ house in the town he dedicates several albums to expressing his desire to leave, singing the resolution to his own depression–singing himself better in the close, “Don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more.” Over and over.
Leesburg, Virginia, Americana. This room that he spends so long looking up at the ceiling of in “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” off a later album. As Hua Hsu has written in a profile of Will Toledo, “a pop song can take you higher but it can’t take you out of Leesburg fast enough.” Virginia, plantation houses and the confederate flag, Virginia. Virginia in the Civil War and the boy with his father’s gun in Powderfinger.
Toledo transforms his depression into something legendary, which is sometimes to say American. The Sober-to-Powderfinger-Death transformation is like when Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1” transforms from the narrator remembering his father’s suicidal tendencies into the desperate, prostrating chorus of “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST–JESUS CHRIST, I LOVE YOU, YES I DO,” of “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2“.
Dream America, with its skinny nervous young men desperate to leave their parents’ homes in the town they grew up in and the hatred of which they’ve been nurturing their whole lives, mumbling to themselves about a gun, or a white boat, or Jesus Christ. Car Seat Headrest transforms the depressive mania of “Sober-to-Death” into a national creation myth of the same monumental proportions as the Civil War.
And me, I sleep outside of America, but I dream along all the same. If in a previous post I wrote that Death Grips are the simultaneous arch-nemeses and champions of American values, the dark ambiguous character watching from the wings, then Car Seat Headrest is my broken golden American hero, if only because they don’t hide behind the same cape of irony and because they dare to assume the universality of their longing. I’m trying to find the words, too, to make This grander than it is without romanticising it, to also find a place where all This can rest next to the lives of others. There is some comfort in your nightmare belonging.