Heaven, hell and humanity: The surprising spirituality of indie rock band Car Seat Headrest
I am probably the only person in the world with a sticker of St. John Paul II and one depicting an album cover from the band Car Seat Headrest on my computer. It sounds like a joke, but when you look more deeply into the indie band that first made its appearance in an online forum, it begins to make sense. Will Toledo, the founder and lead singer of the band, often uses his music as an outlet to examine his teenage feelings as a young gay man in northern Virginia.
Toledo, the band’s sole member for its first five years and 10 full-length albums, writes his rather depressing love songs with a deft hand. His other songs are just as well-written and depressing, but without the love. Toledo can express your feelings of sadness far better than you can, so pick any song and listen to it if you want a soundtrack to your sorrow. But outside of the “my relationship is doomed” lyrics, Toledo also includes a surprising number of religious allusions, especially on existential topics like humanity’s fate and what happens after death.
Will Toledo, the founder and lead singer of the band, often uses his music as an outlet to examine his teenage feelings as a young gay man in northern Virginia.
While Billboard and MTV have touched on religious references in Toledo’s writing, their questions focus mostly on the 2016 album “Teens of Denial,” and that does not come close to addressing all of the allusions he makes. Many would begin any story about his religious influences with a statement that Toledo minored in religious studies in college. And while that is an obvious jumping-off point, it doesn’t explain the many grapplings Toledo has with God, Scripture and death in his work.
Toledo brings up a lot of questions we all struggle with—and some of these even have a very Catholic bent to them, though Toledo himself isn’t Catholic and does not self-describe as religious. (There is a video of him singing a hymn for the Leesburg Presbyterian Church online, though that is not proof of his or his family’s affiliation with the church.)
In his lyrics, it is obvious that Toledo is entranced by the idea of God, or at least something, existing in the ether. He seems to live in an enchanted world, in which existence itself may be questioned but the thought that something else exists out there outside of humanity is never contested.
The most obvious allusions the artist makes are directly to Scripture. “Kid War” off the album “1” lists the genealogy of Jesus, almost directly quoting from Mt 1:2-11 (with an interlude of “I hate you” repeated again and again). And you would not expect that a song about being accepted by a record label would have such strong biblical overtones—yet the doubt of Job’s friends, the chaining of Samson and a dialogue of Justin Martyr all appear in the 6-minute “Times To Die,” released first in 2012 and again in 2015.
Regarding this song, Toledo said in an interview with the Observer, “I like tearing the idea down of religion as this relic of the past, and trying to bring it into modern culture as something that’s very much alive.” Toledo is unafraid to acknowledge that the “source material for most art comes from religion,” and he was “working out of that tradition.” Dedicated listeners can find random religious allusions (“Our Lady of Good Counsel” in a 2008 song) all the way back to his first albums, which predate Car Seat Headrest’s founding.
The most obvious allusions the artist makes are directly to Scripture.
Toledo first recorded the lo-fi and gritty “Twin Fantasy” by himself in 2011, later renamed “Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror),” and in 2018, the better-produced and sonically cleaner version “Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)” was released. A rerelease of the first version, Toledo said in an interview with Pitchfork writer Peyton Thomas, “was just always something on the table for me.”
In one song from that album, “Famous Prophets (Minds),” the protagonist mourns that he will never be able to be with his lover again, possibly because they both have sinned. The song concludes with a quote lifted directly from the First Book of Kings about God not being present in powerful things, but only in “the sound of sheer silence.” The 2018 version, “Famous Prophets (Stars),” retains most of the same lyrics. However, the spoken section changes to 1 Cor 13:2-13. Continuing the theme of twin fantasy from the album, the scriptural phrase “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love” instead becomes “and now these two remain,” an allusion to the protagonist and his lover, or perhaps to the two versions of the album.
The parentheticals in the albums’ titles come from these verses from Corinthians: “For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” The “less-full” version of ourselves is for St. Paul the current, worldly version of ourselves. For Toledo, it was that early version of his album. The fuller release of the album, the one with more clarity, aligns with the fuller version of ourselves, when we will see God face to face—but in both cases, the subject is the same, though it is viewed through different lenses.
Heaven, hell and humanity
Many other Car Seat Headrest songs deal with the nature of humanity, which includes in itself doubt and questions of heaven and hell, or what might happen after death.
A criminally underrated song, “Sinner,” describes a night of drinking and questionable choices, and the singer expresses deep regret, even going as far as picturing his own death. It is not a song for a summer day, but the images painted, though bleak, are haunted by something spiritual. The chorus repeats, “All the angels sing/ You are a sinner, a man of the earth/ Won’t see no heaven, won’t get no second birth,/ You are a sinner, unworthy of mercy/ I know that I’ve done wrong, but please, God, don’t hurt me.” Angels, sin, earth and heaven, mercy—all these images draw out a distinctly Catholic idea, enchanted with something else besides just the narrator himself and the people at this party.
A criminally underrated song, “Sinner,” describes a night of drinking and questionable choices.
The second verse begins, “I only get on my knees to puke/ Confess in the men’s room/ ... The body that I’ve poisoned was the only one I had.” This confession, as he kneels on the floor of the men’s room, a physical and spiritual low point, comes at the end of a long night, and as he repeats in the chorus, he confesses his sins yet is still “unworthy of mercy.” The last verse brings mortality back into the picture, as the narrator pictures his own death.
In the spoken outro of “Nervous Young Inhumans ,” Toledo explains in the interview with Peyton Thomas, people can often claim to be good, even, as the narrator does, not believing in evil: “I think that evil is an idea created by others to avoid dealing with their own nature.” The narrator asks, “Do you know about Jesus? Do you really?” But his idea that he both knows Jesus better than his companion and never does evil is obviously false, which Toledo himself knows. In the interview, he explains, “most [C]hristian texts have a lot of good to them, they just get used by bad people,” which is more than a lot of artists could admit about the Bible and other Christian works.
Religion and sexuality
Off the album “1,” “Good Sunday” repeats, “Jesus, we love you and we adore you/ Spirit, we love you and we forgive you/ Jesus, we love you and we adore you/ Spirit, we love you and we destroy you.” Even the tune of this refrain sounds like a hymn, and the phrasing could just as easily be found in a hymnal. But “Spirit… we destroy you” is the opposite and reflects the modern young person’s view that God is destructible.
“They wonder why you never go to church,/ Hard to explain why it doesn’t work,” begins “Beast Monster Thing (Love Isn’t Love Enough).” There are a multitude of reasons why church “doesn’t work” for people today, though as seen in many of Toledo’s other songs, religion or the transcendent is often at odds with sexuality. The line continues, “’Cause you’re not living in sin well,/ and you’re not living in health well.” Each “well” could easily be heard as “Will,” a call-out from the singer to himself. He is not living in sin well—not achieving the goal of living in sin, yet he is also not living up to God’s commands. It is also notable that he juxtaposes “sin” and “health,” insinuating that the state of sin is like an illness, and that being healthy means being forgiven of sin. Many ancient theologians would agree.
In other songs, the narrator’s beloved is held up as a supremely holy figure, such that the narrator feels like his lover is unattainably perfect. “Treat him like a god now/ Treat him like a god of the Earth,” he repeats in “Foreign Song.” “You are a god in the machines,” he sings in “Even The Who Knows” (as opposed to the line in the companion song “Who Even Knows,” “You are a cog in the machine”), insinuates that his lover is not only part of what happens in the world, but the leader and director of it. “I will be your rock, God, when you’re rolling the dice /… / I will be your rock, dog, when you’re rolling your eyes,” he sings in “Cute Thing.” While “dog” and “God” are a fun reverse pair, they could also both easily be references to his lover: The person about whom the song was written went by “partydogge” online.
On the latest album, “Deadlines (Hostile)” and “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” have some of the same lyrics or melodies, though the chorus switches out “temptation” for “compassion”—they are not antonyms, just as “hostile” and “thoughtful” in the titles are not opposites, but both temptation and compassion play a role. Temptation, the desire to do something unwise, is against God, and compassion brings someone closer to God—not that the speaker is necessarily a believer, but these ideas are found so often in religious spaces.
For someone who has said he does not subscribe to any religion, Will Toledo has produced a corpus of writing that is highly influenced by a spiritual worldview. At least one song from almost every album includes some religious allusion—from angels and devils to the very spiritual ideas of heaven or hell. So much of Toledo’s music tries to find some kind of meaning in life, and while it is often something more human or physical, his references to the spiritual world reinforce that purpose is from a higher power.
Really, why should I be the only one with a love for Will Toledo and John Paul II?