Review: Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open
National Music Reviews
Car Seat Headrest
Making A Door Less Open
Car Seat Headrest = The Strokes + (Sandy) Alex G + Com Truise
How many dishes can one handwash during the Car Seat Headrest song “Martin?” In the official lyric video, frontman Will Toledo only gets through five (including the draining and thorough rinsing of a beer can) before dropping a Tupperware into the sink and staring blankly into the camera with large, glowing eyes. In the video, he’s wearing a hat with white fabric goat horns, an orange traffic jacket and—oh, yeah—a digitized gas mask.
It’s through this video that Car Seat Headrest fans are introduced to Toledo’s alter-ego “Trait.” This mysterious character previously existed only in 1 Trait Danger, Toledo and CSH drummer Andrew Katz’s electronic side project. On Making A Door Less Open, Toledo and Katz blend the two projects together with not just the costume, but also by infusing CSH’s emphatic alt-rock with sample-heavy electronica. For anyone who’s followed Car Seat Headrest since Toledo pumped out punk-tinged DIY albums from the back seat of his parent’s car, this dynamic shift might be a lot to take in. But somehow, just like Toledo’s unexpected new persona, the peculiar direction of the album just … works.
Making A Door Less Open was recorded twice, once as a live band, and then again entirely through MIDI. The final version of the album fuses these two recordings, pushing Car Seat Headrest’s depressive rock sound into electronic-rock territory without looking back. It’s the band’s first new music in four years, and is certainly their most hi-fi offering to date. Despite all that’s different, it still checks all the classic CSH boxes: Emotive guitar progressions accompany unhinged melodies, while nostalgic lyrics impart all the sweet-and-sour flavor of coming-of-age heartbreak, despair, drug trips and self-loathing. The overall tone of CSH songs has always been that of a dark comedy, and on MADLO, that dark comedy is now danceable. Toledo’s throaty voice pierces through it all, switching between an imperfect falsetto and his other, deeper vocal tone, the one that imparts such heavy emotion it sometimes sounds as if he’s stifling a sob.
More than anything, what shocked me most about MADLO is the diversity of almost every single track. The fascinating, catchy single “Can’t Cool Me Down” showcases hollow, disjunct keys that compliment bright synth chords and groovy bass. “Hollywood” is a headbang-worthy rock anthem that rips fame apart through angry, Beck-like recitation. “There Must Be More Than Blood” is a mellowed-out black hole of speaker fuzz and heavy-hanging guitar riffs. On “Hymn,” Toledo’s wailing voice is ominously mirrored by the voice of a robot, as if he’s turning into Trait on this track, overcome by his mechanical alter-ego.
Amid the boots-and-cats electronic beat of “Deadlines,” Toledo sings, “I don’t even know if it’ll be a single / I got no idea how it’ll play on vinyl.” He does know how it’ll play on vinyl, though, as the track listings and mixes on MADLO differ greatly from format to format. In fact, the aforementioned lyric (and this version of “Deadlines” as a whole) can only be found on the CD or vinyl versions of the album. On only the physical mix of “Weightlifters,” Toledo mumbles what sounds like a meditation or yoga flow instruction before the track’s wavering synth jumps to life. The significance of this intro becomes clear later in the track when Toledo laments about Eastern philosophy: “If thoughts can change your body / It’s all on me.” These are just a few of several remarkable nuances (I can’t spoil them all) that differ between the digital and physical mixes of this album, and I’ll leave the dutiful listener to find the rest.
While Car Seat Headrest’s modern discography has previously been characterized by the reworking of old material, Making a Door Less Open is an actual reinvention of the band’s sound and the frontman’s persona. In “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” (Teens of Denial, 2016), Toledo yells, “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved The Beach Boys? / What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses.” Is the Will Toledo we knew dead, leaving Trait in his wake? Probably not. But on the last track, “Famous,” after electronic samples explode into a kaleidoscope of sound, the album ends suddenly with lots of loud robot gibberish and Trait gets the last word. –Mekenna Malan