ALBUM REVIEW: Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open

Car Seat Headrest
Credit to Carlos Cruz

Car Seat Headrest – helmed by ridiculously talented and prolific songwriter Will Toledo – release much anticipated album “Making a Door Less Open” today, on Matador Records. It’s their first set of brand new songs since 2016’s awesome “Teens Of Denial” and for long-time Car Seat Headrest fans it will be both a challenging and a rewarding listen.

“Making A Door Less Open” is an eclectic mix, to say the least. It contains 11 tracks recorded between January 2015 and December 2019, which started as a collection of vague ideas that eventually turned in to songs, although some of the songs on the album remain more developed than others. Some of them still feel like ideas in their development. Toledo described his process:

I wanted to make something that was different from my previous records, and I struggled to figure out how to do that. I realized that because the way I listened to music had changed, I had to change the way I wrote music, as well. I was listening less and less to albums and more and more to individual songs, songs from all over the place, every few days finding a new one that seemed to have a special energy. I thought that if I could make an album full of songs that had a special energy, each one unique and different in its vision, then that would be a good thing.

This approach leads to an album that certainly feels less like a collection of songs hanging together with some thematic thread and more like a collection of individual songs with their own intent. It is the sound of someone still developing ideas in real time up to the point that they are committed to tape. Toledo seems to be using this collection of songs as an audible mood board, allowing him to try different things and sort through them to further refine his ideas and style. To that end, this feels like Toledo is defiantly moving from a bedroom troubadour to a full on rock star (replete with alternative persona) and leaving behind his lo-fi roots to take on the role of brave musical explorer and experimenter.

Andrew, Ethan, Seth and I started going into the studio to record songs that had more finished structures and jam on ideas that didn’t. Then I would mess with the recordings until I could see my way to a song. Most of the time on this album was spent shuttling between my house and Andrew’s, who did a lot of the mixing on this. He comes from an EDM school of mixing, so we built up sample-heavy beat-driven songs that could work to both of our strengths.

Making A Door Less Open
Album Cover

The album reveals itself slowly and it is worth investing in multiple listens for it to fully come in to focus. Stylistically, it plays with and fuses synths, dum-machine beats, EDM, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, jazz and rock to create a set of songs that will have enough familiarity for long time Car Seat Headrest fans. It will challenge them though, and I mean it will challenge them hard and it will ask them to do some work. That’s a compliment to Toledo’s artistic bravery and his vision and ability to hew smart and engaging music from a range of basic raw materials to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. As Toledo puts it:

I think my main hope for the world of music is that it will continue to grow by taking from the past, with a consciousness of what still works now. Exciting moments in music always form at a crossroads – a new genre emerges from the pieces of existing ones, an artist strips down a forgotten structure and makes something alien and novel. If there is a new genre emergent in our times, it has not yet been named and identified, but its threads come from new ways of listening to all types of music, of new methods of creating music at an unprecedented level of affordability and personal freedom, of new audiences rising up through the internet to embrace works that would otherwise be lost, and above all from the people whose love of music drives them to create it in the best form they possibly can. Hopefully it will remain nameless for some time, so it can be experienced with that same newness and strangeness that accompanies any and all meaningful encounters with music.

The album kicks off with “Weightlifters”, a slowly assembled collection of beats and drone sounds with Toledo’s vocals only coming in after almost a minute and a half – “Back when I had time to dream. I dreamed of ordinary faces. Frozen unexpressed emotions”. Next up is single “Can’t Cool Me Down” all 80s synths and drum-machine beats and Toledo’s ragged vocals. There is a melody in there too which comes in and out like the tide. “Headlines (Hostile)” divines the sound of Pavement to great effect – an apology to a lover and some self-referential lyrics – “Here are words. But they all. Taste like shit. And none of them make sense. And none of them sit – sit still!. I don’t even know if it’ll be a single. I got no idea how it’ll play on vinyl”

Latest single – “Hollywood” – gets straight to it with intense vocals from Toledo that are part way between singing and rapping, but are damned angry: “I’m sick of violence, I’m sick of money, I’m sick of drinking, I’m sick of drugs, I’m sick of fucking, I’m sick of staring at the ads on the bus”. The song is a pretty singular and focused attack on Tinseltown and everything about it that makes Toledo sick – “Hollywood makes me want to puke” is the constant refrain. Toledo explains:

“This song is about 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. There’s this terror you’re going to lose the fantasy, and you’re going to have to face the facts, and some people will do anything to avoid facing that. It’s about that fear, and the pain of being subjugated to someone else’s fantasy against your will, and it’s all tied together under this banner of this physical location of Hollywood that we all know about and dream about, but none of us really want to think about what is going on behind the scenes there.”

Car Seat Headrest - Trait
Will Toledo as new persona ‘Trait’

In the video for “Hollywood”, you see Toledo’s new alter-ego / persona called ‘Trait’, in which he will also be playing live shows when those resume.

I decided to start wearing a mask for a couple of reasons. One, I still get nervous being onstage with everybody looking at me. If everyone is looking at the mask instead, then it feels like we’re all looking at the same thing, and that is more honest to me. Two, music should be about enjoying yourself, especially live music, and I think of this costume as a way to remind myself and everyone else to have some fun with it.

The rest of the album is the same eclectic mix of rock’n’beat musical exploration. “Hymn (Remix)” is a noisy, messy, urgent tune that doesn’t sound like anything Car Seat Headrest has done before. Single – “Martin” – on the other hand is slap back in familiar territory and has received lots of airplay via BBC 6 Music. “Deadlines (Thoughts)” is another dance-infused track, sounding a little like someone messing about in their bedroom in the 80’s on a Casio synth. Layered on top is some furious, fuzzy guitars. “What’s With You Lately” is a lovely plaintiff fragment of a ballad but feels out of place.

“Life Worth Missing” is a standout on the album. Coming in with a driving beat, it builds to a glorious, euphoric crescendo reminiscent of “Pounding” by Doves. This is a more obvious, incremental development for the band’s sound. In a sense, and this feels odd to say, but this album might be too big a stylistic leap in one go for Car Seat Headrest, feeling at times like they’ve gone from “Please Please Me” to “Sgt Peppers” (in terms of experimentation and sound) without building up to it via “Rubber Soul”. Kudos to Toledo and Co. for that, and maybe that’s a reflection of the length of the album’s gestation but more likely Toledo’s artistic vision and intent. I can’t help feeling though, that they’ve missed an opportunity to showcase their development over a number of albums, particularly given Toledo’s huge output prior to first ‘proper’ album “Teens of Denial”. Spiky, droning “There Must Be More Than Blood” and eerie, cut and splice number “Famous” round out the alum.

This isn’t the album I was expecting to hear and that’s a good thing. Toledo has certainly challenged expectations with these 11 songs and that’s a brave thing to do because expectations of this album have been intense. Car Seat Headrest have delivered a collection of songs on “Making A Door Less Open” that show that you can leap a chasm in one jump as long as you are brave enough to imagine it.

You can get the album on digital, CD and vinyl here.

“Making a Door Less Open” Tracklist:
1. Weightlifters
2. Can’t Cool Me Down
3. Deadlines (Hostile)
4. Hollywood
5. Hymn (Remix)
6. Martin
7. Deadlines (Thoughtful)
8. What’s With You Lately
9. Life Worth Missing
10. There Must Be More Than Blood
11. Famous

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