Album Review: Car Seat Headrest, ‘Making a Door Less Open’

    It’s been four years since we last got an album of entirely new material from Car Seat Headrest. Normally, that wouldn’t be such a huge gap – but in roughly the same span of time, before signing to Matador, Will Toledo released no less than 12 albums on Bandcamp under the same moniker. But 2016’s Teens of Denial was a turning point for the project –  an indie rock juggernaut that came to be scrutinized as much by critics who praised it for its dynamic yet catchy song structures as it was by fans who analysed it interminably in Reddit subforums.

    Not that Toledo has been entirely absent during this time. In 2018, he released a re-recorded, polished version of his 2011 project Twin Fantasy, to more critical acclaim. He continued repurposing old material with 2019’s Commit Yourself Completely, this time through the live album format. But most intriguingly, he put out two albums with drummer Andrew Katz as 1 Trait Danger, a comedic EDM ‘side-project’ where Toledo could cheekily poke fun at the very same system that had crowned him indie rock royalty. Wit and humour had always been among Toledo’s strong suits as a songwriter, but for the first time, he could enjoy making something defiantly silly and balls-to-the-wall fun, with absolutely no regard as to how it would be received.

    For Toledo, keeping the two projects separate didn’t seem like the more interesting option, and so Making a Door Less Open marks the grand introduction of his new persona, Trait, to the rest of the world. Inspired by the Bob Dylan mantra “if someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth”, this new character finds Toledo wearing a gas mask (talk about bad timing), partly because it simply makes him feel more comfortable during live performances, but perhaps also as a way of separating the himself from his art. With all the fame and scrutiny that came with the intensely personal Teens of Denial, you can’t exactly blame him.

    Musically, too, the sounds Toledo has been experimenting with on his side-project find their way on Making a Door Less Open. Not too dissimilar in style from fellow mask-wearing, genre-mixing alternative duo Twenty One Pilots, Car Seat Headrest’s latest presents itself as the classic ‘indie rock band experimenting with electronic production’ album, from the droning synths that open ‘Weightlifters’ to straight-up EDM jams like ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’. But MADLO is harder to figure out, as it sounds like it’s trying to be as much of an appeal to the masses as it is an off-kilter experiment – on one end, there’s ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’, which might as well be a cover of a Killers song, and on the other, there’s the utterly chaotic ‘Hymn (Remix)’ (one of three version spread across the album’s different formats). Neither of them are exactly bad, by any means, but it feels like Toledo’s not willing to commit to either direction fully.

    Which, of course, is kind of the point. Rather than trying to open a new door, Toledo seems to be frustratingly caught in between ones he’s already opened, different sides of him that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, there’s Trait, who looks at the stupidity of the world and screams about how it “makes him wanna puke” (‘Hollywood’) and sums up the futility of the creative process by pointing out that “You are not unique/ Everything you’ve done has been done and will be done again” (1 Trait Danger’s ‘Unique’). And then there’s that other side, the one that still yearns for meaning: “Please let this matter,” he sings out on ‘Famous’.

    If it weren’t for the upbeat electronic beat that guides the song, ‘Famous’ wouldn’t feel out of place on any other Car Seat Headrest record. In fact, with the exception of tracks like ‘Hollywood’, which sounds like the long-lost cousin to My Chemical Romance’s ‘Teenagers’, the majority of the album doesn’t stray that far from Toledo’s usual songwriting tropes – take the acoustic cut ‘What’s With You Lately’, for example, or the soaring ‘Life Worth Missing’. Neither does Trait’s snarkiness overshadow the kind of soul-searching Toledo’s become known for. Of the songs that do tread new sonic ground for the band, though, ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’ is the most memorable one – Toledo’s uneasy hum cooing brilliantly against slowly-unfolding, Radiohead-esque electronics.

    It’s not that other experiments here aren’t successful, but there’s a kind of messiness to the album as a whole that makes it hard to make sense of. Which, again, for an album that’s about feeling lost, is probably intentional – the questions Toledo poses remain largely unresolved, so it only makes sense for the songs to lack resolution, too. On the 7-minute epic ‘There Must Be More than Blood’, he sings: “There must be more than blood/ That holds us together/ There must be more than wind/ That takes us away/ There must be more than tears/ When they pull back the curtain/ There must be more than fear.” Unable to find an answer, he closes the song by repeating the lines “There must be more, there must be more, there must be.”

    Toledo knows that there are no answers, but a part of him is still unable to fully let go and just have fun with it. “I am not that shallow,” he declares on ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’, “I am not that deep.” As intriguing as that conflict is, one does wish that it was explored in a bit more depth here – as it is, the album can sometimes feel aimlessly disorienting in its ambivalence. But while it doesn’t reach the same soaring heights as Teens of Denial – something Toledo has pointedly avoided trying – there are still plenty of worthwhile moments on MADLO, even if the subtext is sometimes more interesting than the album itself.

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