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Car Seat Headrest - Making a Door Less Open Music Album Reviews

On his odd and ambitious new album, singer-songwriter Will Toledo dons a gas mask, adds electronic textures, and tries to separate himself from the indie fame of Car Seat Headrest.

Feeling like shit is the emotional baseline in Car Seat Headrest songs. Sex, drugs, or, if we’re taking Making a Door Less Open at its word, indie rock’n’roll fame only make it worse. Car Seat Headrest mastermind Will Toledo self-recorded and self-released nearly a dozen albums in the six years leading up to 2016’s feverishly lauded Teens of Denial, a commercial breakthrough that could easily be framed as an argument for the relevancy of an entire subculture. Released on Matador, feverishly debated and annotated on Reddit and Genius, a fount for major and minor Twitter controversies, Teens of Denial was a triumph for the past three decades of indie rock: a unification of ’90s aesthetics, ’00s blog-rock ascendancy, and 21st-century consumption.
It has taken Toledo four years to release another collection of new material. And with it, he’s introduced Trait, his gas-mask-wearing alter ego that writes and sings exactly like Will Toledo. Though it’s ostensibly a gimmick or a distraction, Toledo has explained Trait as a means of clarifying his intentions by allowing everyone, himself included, to take the focus off Will Toledo for once. Or, put more plainly, it’s a way to make a Car Seat Headrest album without being “Car Seat Headrest.”

This requires revisiting a time when “Car Seat Headrest” wasn’t loaded with meaning, heavy with all of the inane interviews, critical misinterpretation, endless tours, lawsuits, and deadlines earned by the success of Teens of Denial. At 43 minutes, Making a Door Less Open is one of the shortest Car Seat Headrest albums in the catalog and the first to be explicitly modeled after that year’s quartet of introductory, numbered compilations that preceded any flicker of buzz: a collection of singles with no overarching concept, no real allegiance to the “album” as a finalized document. Vinyl owners will hear “Hymn” as an interminable three-minute drone, while the CD and digital format feature its breakbeat-riddled remix. “Deadlines” has “Acoustic,” “Hostile” and “Thoughtful” retoolings, while “Martin” variously appears as the fourth, sixth, and seventh track. Making a Door Less Open already exists in three different formats, with more fan-made “Best Of”s inevitably to come.
But all versions start with the essential “Weightlifters,” which functions the same way “Fill in the Blank” did on Teens of Denial, acknowledging the heightened stakes and validating the expectations of a “new, improved Car Seat Headrest.” Toledo kicked off Teens of Denial with an exuberant defense of depression that positioned him as an heir to Matador’s prolific slacker icons Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard, while here, “Weightlifters” reflects Car Seat Headrest’s status as the only Bandcamp-to-bandshell success story that warranted a live album. There have been many Car Seat Headrest songs structured like “Weightlifters”—where the beat builds for two minutes or so while Toledo breathlessly untangles a web of thoughts until its pithy core is revealed (“I should start lifting weights/Cause I believe that thoughts can change my body”). But Car Seat Headrest has never operated with the level of showmanship displayed here. The whirring synths and electronics sound more like walk-on music for the mighty septet that held its own at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl.

It’s the best-case scenario for the newly bionic Car Seat Headrest, one that Toledo designed to compete with the pop and hip-hop acts that have banished rock bands like his from the zeitgeist. If anything, Making a Door Less Open benefits from the inherent repetition of electronic music. —rather than the circuitous, tangential songwriting Toledo stretched out to five minutes or more, songs like “Can’t Cool Me Down” and “There Must Be More Than Blood” just circle back to their hooks and hang on for dear life. It’s an apt structure for songs inspired by exhaustion, as Toledo’s most memorable images find him half-asleep on a red-eye and taking the stage through fever sweats and lemon throat lozenges.

Yet, it’s not the “electronic influence” on Making a Door Less Open that belongs in scare quotes, but that of Toledo’s electronic “side project” called 1 Trait Danger, where Toledo and drummer Andy Katz imagined a band’s entire fictional career arc within two albums. Anyone who’s swapped guitars for synths likely understands the thrill of reinhabiting a beginner’s mindset, where pressing a button on the arpeggiator feels as significant as learning the chords to a Green Day song as a teenager. From that angle, maybe there’s a contact high to be gained from the overeager panning effects, samples, and redlining drums that clutter “Life Worth Missing” and “Famous” and leave them sounding like incoherent remixes of themselves.

That same sense of gleeful adventure goes missing when Making a Door Less Open hews closest to autobiography. When Toledo describes Hollywood as “a place where people go to make their fantasies come to life, and they end up exploiting other people and doing terrible things to maintain their fantasy,” does he even expect people to repeat his words like he’s making a novel point? “Hollywood” is essentially Toledo’s version of Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” somehow both the laziest and most ruthlessly calculated thing he’s done. Its concept is catchy and banal enough (“Hollywood makes me wanna puke!”) to realistically get co-opted by the very people in its crosshairs. The most generous possible reading of “Hollywood” is as a lyrical Eephus pitch, something that destabilizes through counterintuitive simplicity. Perhaps it’s not a mockup of Hollywood’s facade, but the cliché of people feeling like they have something new to say about it.

This take becomes impossible to sustain with “Deadlines,” where Toledo’s stylistic tics— in-game metacommentary, nagging harmonies—start to feel like Car Seat Headrest cannibalizing itself. But if a song about the drudgery of songwriting is itself a slog, does that mean “Deadlines” achieves its goal? Or does it suggest that not even Toledo can use writer’s block as a prompt at this point? The latter seems more realistic in light of Making a Door Less Open’s more overtly inessential tracks. In the past, “Hymn” and threadbare interlude “What’s With You Lately” could’ve been written off as the churn of Toledo’s bustling DIY cottage industry. But when they make up 20 percent of the tracklist of his only collection of new material in four years, they become a working definition of filler.

They’re not spectacular failures either, but Making a Door Less Open would inevitably benefit from a willingness to risk spectacular failure—this isn’t the hard left-turn “Can’t Cool Me Down” hinted at. Though I’ve seen plausible comparisons to Julian Casablancas chasing off the squares with the Voidz, the album never alienates and antagonizes to the same extent—its mild disappointments and half-realized experiments lack the contrarian conviction that mints future cult classics.

For that, I direct you to 1 Trait World Tour, a concept album about 1 Trait Danger accepting the “Softmore Slump” after a critically acclaimed debut and taking good-natured shots at Car Seat Headrest's actual neighbors on festival side stage lineups: Beach House, the xx, laptop EDM producers, Mac DeMarco. As far as Matador artists moonlighting with hip-hop, it somehow drew less attention than Interpol singer Paul Banks’ experimental rap album, Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be. Katz worried that 1 Trait Danger would jeopardize Car Seat Headrest’s reputation, but they followed their muse anyway. The side-project only essential for being so profoundly inessential, yet more than Making a Door Less Open, it feels like a project in which Toledo followed his own artistic credo: commit yourself completely.

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