By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
For most artists, penning a socially conscious song is a lyrical minefield. So easily can a singer’s examination of his or her society devolve into a rote listing of clichéd observations devoid of any real insight, specificity, or passion. There’s a fine line between The Clash’s sharp document of urban poverty in The Magnificent Seven and the idealistic-but-tentative egalitarianism of Lennon’s Imagine. All it takes is one mawkish turn of phrase to reduce an otherwise insightful societal think piece into contrived, shallow tripe. Yet on War Is Coming (If You Want It), Car Seat Headrest’s contribution to Bandcamp for its Transgender Law Center fundraiser, cliché and originality cohabit to create both a scathing social critique and a sentimental dithyramb of affirmation.
Upon the single’s release, speculation ensued claiming that the song may be directed at 13 Reasons Why, a series that features the Car Seat Headrest song Oh! Starving and whose subject matter has prompted frontman Will Toledo to admonish the show on Twitter for its allegedly glorified portrayal of suicide. With the lines “Last night I dreamed that you’d murdered some kids/…If it had been on TV I would’ve changed the channel,” there’s an undeniable acrimony supposedly aimed at the series. But the lyrics grow more complex as the song progresses, with Toledo dropping in a furtive Bowie reference (“She’s keeping quiet in a season of crime”) and retrofitting a Doors lyric to propagate genuine social commentary (“People are strange/ If they keep on laughing/ Nothing will change”). The more abstruse lines are tempered, though, by the song’s straightforward, borderline trite phrases like “Lift up your voice and change someone’s mind.” Here, as on previous CSH songs, Toledo seamlessly combines clichéd sayings with oblique allusions to create a work that’s both accessible and arcane, universal and ultra-specific.
War Is Coming as a whole is a clarion call, an incendiary plea for us to “Reach out [our] hands and save someone’s life.” Musically, it’s a synth-based track reminiscent of previous CSH songs such as Monomania’s Misheard Lyrics or How to Leave Town’s Kimochi Warui, yet its large-scale lyrical ambitions would better jibe with the big guitar sound of the group’s most recent release Teens of Denial. Nonetheless, the track, along with the altruistic nature of its Bandcamp charity release (even if it was only available for one day), strives to better the world in uncertain and troubling times. Rock music may not be the panacea to the world’s ailments, but dammit if it isn’t trying.