One of the first things I ever read that really surprised me was George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
It wasn’t for a reason you might think. I got the animal allegory pretty early on. The ending wasn’t shocking to me. But as I read the novella first published in 1945 I realized something: Orwell had essentially used Animal Farm as a first draft for his more well-known work 1984, which was published four years later.
I had already read 1984 by the time I picked up Animal Farm, and I had no idea the similarities between the two until I dug in. It wasn’t the content, but the concept that blew me away. In hindsight it sounds ridiculous, but I just didn’t know you could even do that. When you create art, I thought, the idea had to be complete. I didn’t think you could just reuse ideas until you got them right.
You learn to write by reading others, and I had never really seen such overlap in theme in such a clear way. I make no qualms about where my writing comes from. There’s nothing I do that’s unique—it’s all taken from what I liked in the works I’ve read. And it was through Orwell I saw that writers can evolve and can get better. It wouldn’t be the first time the work of another made this so clear.
I often get stuck in a rut when it comes to music, and lately I’ve been stuck on Car Seat Headrest. The band is led by Will Toledo, who for a long time was the entire band. He’d record music in the back seat of a car as a teenager, upload it to Bandcamp and go on with his life. By the time Toledo signed with Matador Records and put together a real band, he had 11 albums worth of music available for free online. They’re young and talented and Toledo is a great lyricist. The band is extremely my deal, and for about a year now I’ve spun their latest record, Teens of Denial, at least a few times a week.
One of their most popular songs is called “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” a 6-minute vehicle that features a haunting music video and some of the most interesting lyrics I’ve heard in some time. The song seems to be about reconciling your actions and during a rough time in your life, which is something I certainly identified with over the last year.
“You share the same fate as the people you hate,” Toledo sings, a nihilistic line that sets up a confession of sorts.
You build yourself up against others’ feelings
And it left you feeling empty as a car coasting downhill
I have become such a negative person
It was all just an act
It was all so easily stripped away
But if we learn how to live like this
Maybe we can learn how to start again
The song swells and flows into a chorus that ends with the line “there’s no comfort in responsibility,” which is the kind of thing you tweet late at night in an effort to be a bit ambiguous about how difficult it is to deal with life’s complexities.
When I saw Car Seat Headrest play live in Toronto last September, they played “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” exactly how it sounds on the album. And it was great. Toledo has gone a long way from making records on his own. The band sounded great, the songs carried over live, and the atmosphere was jubilant.
But then something happened in December when the band appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show. Car Seat Headrest had debuted a single for Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, and it was markedly different than the song that appears on the album.
The 4-minute, slimmed down track is much more melodic and lost many of the lyrics I loved from the first version. It’s still a song that’s sort of about trying to get home when you’ve had too much to drink. The bits of nihilism were still there, but the song’s direction seems to pull toward something altogether different.
“I hate to say it but, baby, this could be our fate,” Toledo sings on a soundstage in New York. “Sitting here in silence while you lie beside me and wait for the song to end.”
But if we learn how to live like this, baby, we can learn how to start again
I’ll make that song right, I’ll play it again and again and again.
The revised single could be considered a meditation on relationships, but in the context of this single it seems to be about songwriting itself. Toledo dove back into a song that’s gotten a million views on YouTube, kept a few of the working parts and transformed the single into a completely different style and substance.
I not sure which version of the song is better than the other. I’m not sure a comparison is even fair because are just so different, and that’s because Toledo approached them at different times in his life.
It’s a perspective that’s deep inside the band’s DNA. Teens of Style is essentially a showcase of Toledo’s best songs from his back catalog, while Teens of Denial was made before the band really toured that first album. Many of these songs were written by Toledo alone when he was in a very different emotional state.
The band did a performance for Seattle radio station KEXP in January where Toledo talked about his songwriting and the evolution of his creative perspective.
“I think I’m definitely in a better place than I was when I was writing, say, Teens of Denial,” Toledo said. “But, you know, it’s a journey. Life is a journey. And I try and track that with the songs that I write. It’s basically how the song turns out is what my headspace was.”
The 12 songs on Teens of Denial make for excellent listening. Critics raved about them. Some fans have said the band can “save” rock, whatever that means anymore. But when the time came to showcase a song on a national stage, Toledo somehow found a way to eschew what was already there and create something new. To a writer seeking his own evolutionary path, it struck me as remarkably brave. But Toledo is comfortable in his own growth.
“I couldn’t write a song the same way I wrote it back before I had a label or anything,” he said later in the interview. None of this is groundbreaking, but that Toledo is so willing to revise— to throw away even the good work he’s done in search of something better—is bold.
Or maybe they were just told by Matador to jazz it up a bit. I don’t know, but it seemed clculted to me. I think it’s what makes him as impressive a songwriter as I’ve seen in music today.
Consider this: He’s capable of penning a sprawling, 11 and a half-minute ballad that weaves the doomed story of a sunken ocean liner into his own youthful insecurities. But somehow The Ballad of the Costa Concordia features remarkably insightful personal struggles right next to lyrics stolen from a Dido song.
“I’m going to bed now. I’ve sunk into my sorrow and it’ll take $300 million to get me up tomorrow,” is a line Toledo wrote just before he copped the chorus from White Flag, apparently just for the hell of it.
Maybe it’s not some masterwork of genius. Perhaps for him the words all just worked. But it’s easy to get caught up in tinkering with things as an artist of any kind. Finding the balance between ‘fixing’ your old work and transforming it into something better is so damn difficult. At 25, it seems to me that Toledo has already found the right balance. I only wish I were that lucky.
As a writer constantly tempted to look at the words written here and tinker with the past, it’s a bit frustrating to see someone find it so early. But it’s also incredibly inspiring. When I listen to Car Seat Headrest I realize the archives are not full of incomplete thoughts and ideas, but rather the ever-evolving body of a work in progress. The words are malleable, whether on paper or out there on a website for someone to discover for themselves.
What matters is that you’re willing to keep trying to get it right. Again and again and again.