The beloved indie icons return with their first offering in 4 years and, with it, a more experimental sound and concept. While showing signs of promise, this latest release ultimately falls slightly short, lacking the charisma of their previous work.
Car Seat Headrest are that particular type of band which inspires total devotion from a particular type of music fan. Originally Will Toledo’s bedroom project, they are in many ways still addressing the audience in that same intimate, vulnerable way. 2018’s Twin Fantasy was a triumph, catnip for those who pore over liner notes. A re-imagining of an album originally released in 2011, it was precisely the kind of project that is there to be obsessed over. It presented a fresh idea of how exactly an indie band can still reinvent and innovate an arguably tired genre, and in its exploration of Toledo’s sexuality gave us a lodestone for modern rock. That album was met with considerable critical acclaim, with Toledo at the centre. So, it’s both surprising and more than a little exciting that he has decided to rip up his own rulebook almost entirely on his new album, Making A Door Less Open.
By Toledo’s own admission, he found himself somewhat bored by the way he had traditionally made albums. He was listening to single songs as opposed to albums, and felt he needed to change his writing approach to reflect this. This change dovetailed nicely with one of his collaborators’ EDM background, and he began to see his music as loops and layers as opposed to more conventional structures – although he’d never been afraid to flaunt those, either. Add to the mix electronic instruments that had been far from the spotlight on previous efforts, and a very different kind of Car Seat Headrest album begins to emerge. But something else is different here too. Aside from structures, production, and the use of new instruments, there’s a change far deeper in the album, a change right in the core of Car Seat Headrest’s DNA. Will Toledo is no longer Will Toledo; or rather, he’s not writing from that perspective anymore.
'Add to the mix electronic instruments that had been far from the spotlight on previous efforts, and a very different kind of Car Seat Headrest album begins to emerge'.
In the gap between Twin Fantasy and Making A Door… Toledo has pursued a side project called 1 Trait Danger with Andrew Katz - the producer responsible for the EDM influences here and member of the Car Seat Headrest live band. Within that group, Toledo plays a character called Trait, who he’s carried over to this Car Seat Headrest album. This manifests itself most obviously as a mask worn by Toledo during all live performances and music videos. It also colours the lyrics here, feeling more loose and at times zany than one would expect from Car Seat Headrest. However, what could have been an exciting, fresh direction from the band feels more like a gimmick than anything, and doesn’t cross the mind even on repeat listens. If a press release hadn’t told me about Trait, it really wouldn’t have changed my experience all that much. The fact of the matter is that Toledo’s vocal delivery is still at its most effective when it is most direct and personal, and that is still when it sounds most like, well, Toledo.
This is, unfortunately, a theme that I found myself returning to over the record. The most affecting moments on this album (and there are a few – singles Can’t Cool Me Down and Martin come to mind) are those that share their skeletons with previous Car Seat Headrest releases, albeit with refreshing production. The tracks where Toledo takes the greatest creative risks are the ones that feel most shallow. I think part of the reason that Car Seat Headrest has worked so well in the past is that it has innovated and reinvented within set constraints.
'However, what could have been an exciting, fresh direction from the band feels more like a gimmick than anything, and doesn’t cross the mind even on repeat listens'.
To anyone familiar with the archetypes and hallmarks of midwestern, mid-90s indie, there’s nothing sonically new on Twin Fantasy. But that’s why it works. Given these well-worn tropes, Toledo can go on to do really interesting things with them. Unmoored from shared references, some of these leaps are a bridge too far, and result in tracks that just fall flat emotionally. Trait may have given Toledo freedom to write from a different perspective, but the reason I - and many others - fell in love with Car Seat Headrest in the first place was the tangible honesty with which he spoke.
Ultimately, Toledo and co. are still a very capable young band, so there are still ballads here that hit hard, and riffs that stick around for a while. But what irks this reviewer is the unrealised potential that Making A Door Less Open has. The idea of Car Seat Headrest taking their same approach of dismantling and rebuilding the status quo to a new set of ideas and touchstones is genuinely exciting, and I really believe that they will pull it off eventually – just not today.