Francesco Schettino was at the helm of the cruise ship Costa Concordia when it struck a rock off the coast of Tuscany in 2012. He abandoned ship – he claimed he accidentally fell into a lifeboat, oops! – and then he hid in a hotel while a massive rescue operation took place. 32 people died, plus another during the subsequent salvage operation. Schettino became a global symbol of cowardice, and was ultimately sentenced to 16 years in prison for manslaughter.
“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is not about Francesco Schettino. It’s about what drives a person, or maybe everyone, to the point of rejecting basic ethical behavior and personal responsibility.
As with much of singer/songwriter Will Toledo’s work, the first section of the song is an indictment of his own depressed brain. He wishes he could feel motivating anger instead of numb defeat. He stays up late “out of some general protest” against no one, and refuses to get up in the morning. He inverts the chorus of Dido’s “White Flag” to swap proud defiance for self-pity: “I won’t go down with the ship… I have lost, and always will be.”
The song then swirls into a delightfully petulant rant: “How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself?” “How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?” “How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?” Continuing to pick up tempo into the song’s seventh minute, a new refrain is introduced: “I give up!”
That becomes the recurring chorus through the rest of the track, as Toledo expands his focus from his own life to his entire broken generation and the society that broke it: “We got mad and we split the scene / Now we download all of our shit for free / It’s the new economy: we have nothing to offer, and we sleep on trash.”
Unfortunate name aside, Car Seat Headrest is the best indie rock act to emerge in the 2010s. At first listen it’s easy to dismiss them as a ‘90s throwback, with their lo-fi Pavement aesthetic and a singer who sounds a lot like early Beck. But the longer you sit with Toledo’s lyrics and dig into his absurdly extensive catalogue (CSH has released nine albums of original material, two albums of re-recorded old stuff after signing to Matador, a live record and two EPs, all in this decade), the more you realize this guy’s not aping anybody. If you need a historical comparison, a better one might be Pete Townshend: a prodigious aptitude for writing three-minute rock songs competing with a head so overflowing with ideas that the format has to expand to contain it all.