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Car Seat Headrest’s ‘Making a Door Less Open’ Follows a Forked Path to a Big Emotional Payoff

Will Toledo’s first album of new material in four years explores familiar themes of anger, loneliness and love while taking his sound to unexpected places.

Carlos Cruz Sol

In 2016, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest cemented his status as an indie rock hero with the superb Teens of Denial. He followed that breakthrough in 2018 with an excellent remake (and slight revision) of Car Seat’s already beloved 2011 album Twin Fantasy, and then last year, dropped a live album for good measure. Despite all that activity, it’s now been four years since Car Seat Headrest’s last LP of all new material, practically an eternity for a band that burst onto the Bandcamp scene with nine albums between 2010 and 2014. And when Toledo finally returned in February to announce the group’s highly-anticipated next album, Making a Door Less Open, he did so with a strange new twist, saying he was going to release the record under his alter-ego, Trait, a character who appeared in photos with glowing LED eyes and a face like a gas mask. Toledo was surely ready to raise a few eyebrows with the decision, but he obviously couldn’t have predicted that Making a Door Less Open would arrive, two months later, in the middle of a global pandemic, when a character like Trait might not be the most comforting sight.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Toledo acknowledged the mask now feels “pointed” in a way he obviously didn’t intend. But it remains key to understanding Making a Door Less Open. Trait comes from 1 Trait Danger, the electronic side-project Toledo developed with Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz. While working on Making a Door Less Open, 1 Trait Danger released two albums, and the relationship between the two bands grew naturally symbiotic. The Making a Door Less Open standout “Deadlines (Thoughtful),” pulls its throbbing synths from 1 Trait Danger’s “D R O V E M Y C A R”, an irreverent blast of electro-rap about a teenager getting fucked up in his dad’s SUV. Musically, 1 Trait Danger has brought some EDM stylings and sensibilities to Car Seat Headrest, but the project has also clearly influenced Toledo’s overall approach to his music. This is, after all, a 27-year-old who’s become a luminary in an indie rock world that probably still takes itself a bit too seriously. In a statement released to coincide with the album, Toledo said the Trait mask was partly “a way to remind myself and everyone else to have some fun with it… If you can’t do that then you’re in a bad place.”

Car Seat Headrest recorded two versions of Making a Door Less Open — one with a classic rock band set up, the other exclusively with synthesizers — then essentially combined them. (The physical and digital versions of the record differ slightly in mix and track list, too; this review deals primarily with the digital release.) The result is an immersive and adventurous album that sounds polished, but never slick, a well-executed experiment in cross-genre pollination that heightens Toledo’s best songwriting impulses — his humor, self-deprecation, cynicism and compassion; his English major’s knack for little details and sharp scenes; and his ability to run all that through gauntlets of musical tension that burst into unforgettable hooks.

Opener “Weightlifters” is a stone cold Car Seat Headrest classic, a restless blast of dance punk shot through with livewire guitar. “Deadlines (Hostile)” is the ragged, riveting indie rock obverse of “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” (there’s even a third “Deadlines” on the physical LP, though that feels less essential than the other two). “Martin,” with its fidgety drums and rushing guitar jangle fits a similar mold, until it gently falls to pieces with a soft Chet Baker trumpet and pitch-shifted vocal hook that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Top 40. And “Life Worth Missing” suggests the Springsteen-ian sequel Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” always deserved. The album’s more electronic and experimental offerings include the bad trip maze of “Can’t Cool Me Down,” and “Hymn (Remix),” which draws a guitar solo that sounds straight off Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma from its gnashing maw of synths and machine drums.

A big part of Toledo’s charm is his ability to craft sweeping epics that explore unified themes, sometimes across whole albums. He’s described Teens of Denial and Twin Fantasy as a bildungsroman and a romance, respectively. MADLO wasn’t built with any such narrative arc. It’s still concerned with the Big Stuff — “anger with society, sickness, loneliness, love…” Toledo wrote in his statement — but there’s a quotidian feel to it, a mundanity that fits the understated hum of Toledo’s singing voice, which he’s able to use in thrilling and unexpected ways.

One example of that skill is “Martin,” about a lover he can’t stop forgetting and remembering while “high on things that bug me/The morning news and instant coffee.” Another is “Weightlifters,” where life’s daily drag agitates grand thoughts of self-improvement that repeatedly elicit the deadpan punchline, “I should start lifting weights.” The penultimate stunner “There Must Be More Than Blood” finds Toledo conjuring a bleary-eyed gaze at a greeting card display to convey the fear of wasting away (“How could they treat you like a forgotten card?/’Dear Dad’ ‘I’m Sorry’ ‘Thank you very much’”), then climbs a pile of harmony towards some kind of cold comfort on a red-eye flight: “We all walk alone.” Toledo remains at his finest when writing about desire. There’s a slipped room number and an unlatched door on “Deadlines (Hostile)” that precedes a close encounter in a hallway, which Toledo recounts with a rapturous upward swing in his voice, “I know I won’t always need you like this/I swear I’m not always falling to bits.”

Even when Making a Door Less Open gets a little clunky, it remains compelling. “Hollywood,” an early single, is a fascinating song and already one of the record’s most divisive — a screed against the entertainment industrial complex and its systems of fantasy and exploitation, centered around a hard rock riff that can feel about as heavy-handed as the song’s refrain, “Hollywood makes me want to puke.” On the digital version of MADLO, Katz screams all the lyrics over Toledo’s dry drone, which doesn’t exactly add any subtlety to an already blunt song. But the “radio version,” from the physical LP, makes Katz’s howl an accoutrement, and lets Toledo smooth the onramp to the sleaze in the rest of the song with the most affectless tone he can flatten into his voice.

Toledo’s voice often recalls Greil Marcus’ description in The Old, Weird America of the uniquely American way some singers wear masks: “so flat that with the slightest inflection it can say anything, imply anything, while seeming to do no more than pass the time.” It’s his casual hum, glassy and cool — not too-cool-for-school, but like vulnerability starting to thaw. It’s the mask he was wearing long before Trait, and one we’ve all worn when trying to make it through another dumb party, another endless day, another heartbreak or debilitating crush. Car Seat Headrest continues to be at its best when capturing the moment the mask starts to slip, when all we want to say, do or be gets muddled into a comedy or a tragedy. When we try to close a door but end up making it less open.

In his artist’s statement, Toledo said that, for all the genre experimenting on Making a Door Less Open, he felt every song on the album was ultimately a folk song. “[T]hey can be played and sung in many different ways, and they’re about things that are important to a lot of people.” Toledo is an avowed student of rock and pop history, and it’s no surprise he’s ended up with this populist and democratic vision for his music. It’s in his emphatic attempt to plot a course towards some genre-less future with Making a Door Less Open, and even in the Trait mask itself: “If everyone is looking at the mask instead, then it feels like we’re all looking at the same thing,” he wrote. Most of all though, it’s in Car Seat Headrest’s ability to render the individual universal in its ongoing search to find the things that hold us together.