On “The Battle of the Costa Concordia,” Will Toledo borrows verses from British pop singer Dido (her 2003 hit “White Flag”) to frame his angst, just like another wordy white boy before him. On “Stan,” released when Toledo was eight, Eminem fretted over a jilted fan’s anger; here, Toledo frets over nearly everything, including an inability to sustain anger. And where Dido sang about bravely going down with her ship, Toledo sputters “I’m not going down with this shit … I give up!” It’s a rock anthem for our times, a breathtaking hydrant-flow of words spraying over 11-plus minutes of dirge-to-rant gear-shifting, evidently informed by hip-hop’s venting self-examination, Dylan’s longer-winded abstractions, and (according to Toledo) Leonard Cohen’s relationship post-mortem “Death of a Ladies Man.” It’s just the longest highlight of a rare thing, a 21st-century Great Rock Record – the formal studio debut of a self-recording wunderkind whose substantial Bandcamp oeuvre, anthologized on last year’s companion piece, Teens of Style, flagged a talent to be reckoned with.
Like past work, Denial conjures Nineties indie aesthetics – Guided By Voices’ British Invasion logorrhea, Liz Phair’s emo sucker-punching, Pavement’s accidental-on-purpose hooks. Instead of playing everything, Toledo has a band now, and access to proper studios, so the sound is fuller and crisper. But the main difference is his voice, no longer muffled in effects but spitting out Moleskines-worth of pain, disgust, anger, confusion, and music-geek inside jokes with clarity and presence. “I’m so sick of/fill in the blank,” goes the album’s first line, and to be sure, dude can’t get no satisfaction. Trips, chemically-assisted and otherwise, are mostly bad. “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” has the album’s second best song title; the best is “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem).” As Toledo notes over gentle guitar strums in the latter: “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit.” Like Courtney Barnett, he comes off as a rock-loving child of alt-rock’s skepticism working backwards towards something to believe in.
It ain’t easy, judging from the album’s difficult birth. Toledo had to re-do “Unforgiving Girl” to remove a three-note phrase from Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that he couldn’t get legal clearance for, and was forced to change the title of “There Is a Policeman in All Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed (Good People)” to reflect its interpolation of a Cars song (“Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed,” still pretty funny, considering). The Cars’ Rik Ocasek ultimately objected, and Toledo had to ditch the borrowed element altogether, forcing his label to destroy the finished LPs and CDs just days before the release. (A Pavement quote evidently wasn’t a problem, but he scrapped that, too.) Toledo just snipped and noise-bombed the contested sections, and “Not What I Needed” remains a great song, funny and tragic, about market algorithms catering to your neuroses to the point that even your bleakest existentialism feels cheapened. Music – in this case, the singer suggests, by Nigerian synth-pop hero William Onyeabor – remains the only relief.
Sure, there’s a faint whiff of marketing stunt to all this; in any case, Ocasek should have paid for the privilege of being on this record. With or without artfully-cribbed melodies, the music is undeniable. See “Killer Whales/Drunk Drivers,” a gorgeously tender song that uses the title analogy to unpack a dizzying load of self-loathing that, suddenly, turns into self-love, swelling like an energy cloud in a yoga-class creative visualization exercise and exploding into a singalong chorus of “it doesn’t have be like this!” like some hollow “It Gets Better” PSA transformed into a true salvation army, one so convinced of its mission it devotes its penultimate verse to talking a drunk out of their car and instructing them to walk home. It’s a small moment – the hopeful saving of one life and by extension others too, a nice metaphor for this record – delivered with tremendous empathy, with a gibberish outro so potent you might find yourself screaming along into the sky, and laughing, as you realize that Toledo found that something to believe in after all.