By Avery Adams
1 May, 2020
After a four-year hiatus, Car Seat Headrest has resurfaced with a new sound, trading the guitar for a synth, in their latest collection Making a Door Less Open.
Despite the absence of material from the indie rock band since their commercial breakthrough Teens of Denial back in 2016, front man Will Toledo has been anything but lacking. Since Toledo’s entrance into the music scene — self-recording nearly a dozen DIY obscure albums, primarily released solely through the internet — he and the rest of Car Seat Headrest have signed with Matador Records, gained critical acclaim, and sold out shows around the world. But since their 2016 breakout, Toledo appears to have toyed with the concept of fame and what happens once you make it big; in response comes 1 Trait Danger. This side project created by Toledo and Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz presents a satirical, mocking persona donning a gas mask — also known as Trait Danger. But more importantly than this alter-ego is the stress on something other than Car Seat Headrest; a way to take the limelight off of the band’s name.
The sidepiece’s 2018 debut 1 Trait High brought an entertaining and unexpected twist for traditionalCar Seat Headrest fans, and their later release 1 Trait World Tour in 2019 comically comments on Car Seat Headrest’s experience as rising indie rock stars in the industry. And so, by presenting this gimmick in Car Seat Headrest’s first album in four years, Toledo allows the listener to take the focus off himself, off the band as a whole, and create an album without being the notorious “Car Seat Headrest.”
In the making of the collection, Car Seat Headrest recorded two different versions — one with a classic rock band set up, paralleling their signature sound, and one replacing all instruments with synthesizers. After the combination of the two to form Making a Door Less Open, their new album delivers Toledo’s classic self-deprecation, cynicism and sense of feeling like shit, but with a bionic take.
The first track of the album, “Weightlifters,” draws on past Car Seat Headrest structures, as the beat builds for nearly three of its five and a half minutes, as if intensifying the stakes and expectations of the new sound of Car Seat Headrest. But unlike previous structure, this opening track showcases a higher level of showmanship with the addition of electronics and synthesized beats.
The promise of paid off risk is captured by “Can’t Cool Me Down,” as Toledo’s classic wails are dragged along by an excited beat and catchy hook. Each staccato beat whirls with his drawls and heavy keyboard, showing what could be the new and improved Car Seat Headrest. The same could be said for the seamless mixture of Toledo’s refined, disparaging songwriting and electrified back-beats in “There Must Be More Than Blood,” prospecting a practiced newfangled sound for the group. But alas, the new mindset brought from the replacement of a drum set and guitar with a synth left several tracks simply overmixed. “Famous,” “Deadlines (Thoughtful),” and “Hymn – Remix” (as named on streaming and CD versions) masked any recognizable lifeline with overeager samples and effects.
“Life Worth Living” hits home as a recognition of Toledo’s yearning lyrics, but the mixture of electronic beats with the old Car Seat Headrest sound without the leaps into experimentation seen in other tracks in this album leave this song feeling a little too much like a filler.
Coming in as one of Car Seat Headrest’s shortest collections to date, Toledo’s previous explorations into five-minute overshares of emotions and landings is traded out with catchy hooks (listen to “Can’t Cool Me Down” if you want a single tune stuck in your head all day).
Another plea to eradicate the attention off Toledo is the use of alternative vocal leads throughout the album. Katz dominates the intensely-sickened “Hollywood,” while Ethan Ives commands the softer ache of “What’s With You Lately.”
Departing from the consoling ‘blog-rock’ domination previously earned by the group, Car Seat Headrest’s experimentation with electronics and pop-influenced hooks of Making a Door Less Open marks a transition for the band. No longer are they the reclusive, somber indie band now that they’ve complicated their sound with commotion and uppity ambition.
Despite not clearing the pay-off of experimentation through every track of the album, Toledo succeeded in his determination to drop the weight of fame and simply commit himself to creating — both a new album and a new persona.