Music Reviews
Making a Door Less Open

Car Seat Headrest Making a Door Less Open

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Ever since his first Bandcamp release ten years ago, Will Toledo has always been a restless artist. With his solo project-turned-band Car Seat Headrest, Toledo’s never been stuck with one thing for long—whether he's pushing from idea to idea, grabbing old but fitting thematic motifs from his own output, toying with different genres, or adding them to a mixture of new tones for each work. Coming off a streak of his best work yet, Toledo finds himself in the spot that he’s always wanted to be in. He’s talked in interviews about how his goal was to be signed to a label, touring with a full group, and getting the opportunity to experiment and make the music he’s always wanted to. Now that he’s there, he seems uncertain of what to do. CSH’s latest, Making a Door Less Open, is the first where Toledo isn’t being a benevolent dictator, allowing ideas from his bandmates to flourish on an uneven but decent release. It’s the work of musicians talented enough to make almost anything good, but the project itself isn’t fully realized enough to be great.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: there’s an immediately notable transformation from the guitar-centered indie rock that dominated CSH’s previous Matador albums, but the transition is less jarring than you’d expect. While electronic elements have been used to success on 2012’s Monomania and 2015’s How to Leave Town, the real shift here comes in approach. The album was recorded twice—once with only MIDI recordings and once with the rock n’ roll setup that you’d expect—with the dual approaches mixed into what is now the final version. Its searing synths and chopped vocals can feel unjustified as a whole, but the songcraft is strong and the style supports some of its best moments. Another big change is the intent behind this album, where instead of making a unified statement, the aim was to create ten individual but equally admirable songs. The project is intentionally splintered, and it’s a compelling and difficult effort for just that reason.

That isn’t to say guitars have disappeared from Making a Door Less Open. This is the first time that Toledo loosens his auteur reins, and you can hear Ethan Ives’ uniquely jagged electric guitar work punching its way across the mix. He’s an exceptional fit for these songs, trying his best to supplement the keys and programmed percussion. On the joyful and fantastic opener Weightlifters, his electric guitar offsets the wailing synths and choppy drums that act as the song’s foundation. While his playing is absent from the cold and infectious Can’t Cool Me Down, his hits and accents help Deadlines (Hostile) build up to one of the hardest rock songs of the band’s career. His soloing cuts through the intro to Deadlines (Thoughtful)—which is built by droning electronic components—making Ives’ guitar even more pronounced. His influence is heard most on the brief What’s With You Lately, which puts Ives’ voice center stage on a gloomy acoustic snippet.

Ives isn’t the only member whose influence rings through here, as drummer Andrew Katz’s background as an EDM producer shines on the album's most experimental moments. In the lead up to the release, Toledo announced that MADLO would be somewhat of a collaboration with Katz’s comedic electro-rap side project 1 Trait Danger. Aside from Deadlines (Thoughtful), which directly uses 1 Trait Danger’s Drove My Car as a template for its instrumentation, the side project’s influence can be felt most on the single Hollywood. Hollywood is a blazing rock song that is a little fun but more stupid than interesting. Toledo and Katz dive into the glamour of Tinseltown headfirst, but the writing is strangely basic and lacking in charm for such a talented lyricist. The chunky guitars and distorted rap verse from Katz feel like an attempt at satire, but the only moment that connects is the spiraling final verse (“Don’t go back to Oklahoma!”).

When this album was announced, Toledo shared that he planned to wear a mask in any future promotional material and live appearances. Assuming his titular character from 1 Trait Danger, Toledo took up the persona of Trait by sharing a vague Bob Dylan quote about wearing masks and emphasizing that he wanted to have fun. It’s an odd note to announce this album with, because for all of its appealing or catchy pieces, MADLO feels like a mostly serious but uncertain swing for the fences. In a recent New York Times profile of Toledo, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus shared that “Will, I think, cares a lot about [the history of rock music], and the place he can fill in [that] history.” With the giant stylistic shift and unconventional branding, this project could solidify his place in the pantheon of indie rockers if it weren’t so unfocused. It’s also the first album where Will sounds like he’s hiding. From the elliptical lyrical content on album highlights Life Worth Missing and There Must Be More Than Blood to the choppy and chaotic EDM-inspired production on Hymn (Remix), this is the first time the emotional core of a Car Seat Headrest album has been hard to find. On the album’s most curious number, the closing track Famous, glitchy pitch-modulation conceals the desperate plea of “Please let this matter.” In the past, Toledo would have shouted these lines to the heavens at the climax of a new indie rock classic—now it’s skewed in the background.

At the core of the strongest Car Seat Headrest songs, there’s always been a cathartic peak. With his best, Toledo has always been a master at the slow build and always knew how to let his songs detonate at the perfect moment. On MADLO, the pinnacles are still there, but none are as satisfying as previous releases. When Toledo belts “I kept my mouth shut and hoped that this would happen to me” atop cascading backing vocals and swirling synths on Weightlifters, you feel like he’s getting close. The lovely Life Worth Missing reaches that point, if only for brief seconds. The buzzing keys and explosive live drums build into the stratosphere as Toledo sings “I hear women in my head with ordinary names, that ring like magic through some malfunction in my brain,” and with that, the album reaches its most jubilant moment.

And still, with all of the grand but empty ambitions, stylistic question marks, and underwritten but solid songs, Car Seat Headrest is still too smart, too catchy, too excellent to make this album worth shrugging off completely. At the soul of this occasionally soulless album, Toledo’s longing, emptiness, and hope still rings true. The penultimate There Must Be More than Blood could act as the album’s thesis, and it might be the best track here. A song about endless touring, feeling like losing connection to what matters in your life (“Dear Dad, I’m sorry”), and generally being unsure of oneself, it helps explain why MADLO doesn’t entirely work. The greatness is there, but for the first time, Toledo and his mates are uncertain of what to do with it. Over How to Leave Town-era drum programming and synth/guitar work that sounds like a summer’s night drive, the longing at the core of every song of this album is laid out plain and clear. It’s hard to ignore this slightly disappointing album because those emotions are just in sight, even if Car Seat Headrest is trying to hide them. When you hear the brimming melancholy from a line like “Please, let someone care about this” on the masterful closer Famous, you know you can’t just give up on them.