You can just picture the look on Will Toledo’s face when Teens Of Denial became one of the critical darlings of 2016. To some extent, he’s always positioned Car Seat Headrest just in the right eyeline to bait the highbrow indie critics, right from the beginning with his monthly album releases recorded in the back of his car, to the fact that Teens Of Denial itself was built as a companion piece to the album released not even a year prior Teens Of Style. They’re the sort of guerilla marketing tactics that on their own would get the savviest of hipster bloggers to sit up and take notice, and coupled with the fact that Car Seat Headrest’s music fits in entirely the right space of wordy, scratchy and frequently awkward indie-rock, it was only a matter of time before Toledo became the newest Pitchfork-indie star of the moment. And so, after a re-recording of his earlier album Twin Fantasy in 2018, Making A Door Less Open is the first true showing of how far Toledo can stretch his carte blanche creative liberties. And well, the fact that this is an album that consists of different versions of certain tracks depending on what format it’s being played on shows he’s taking advantage of that (for posterity’s sake, we’re covering the digital edition), but that in itself begs the question of how far he can go before absolute self-indulgence takes hold. It’s arguable that’s already happened (twelve albums in ten years will do that), but when factoring in that Making A Door Less Open has also been cited for its sonic diversity and being more packed with shifts and styles than any other Car Seat Headrest album to date – not to mention being the culmination of a writing process that begin in 2015 – this could genuinely be Toledo’s ‘jump the shark’ moment on a bigger scale than ever before.
Except that’s not really what this is. Toledo is still every inch of the burnt-out, jaded-past-his-years indie-rocker that’s about as common as archetypes come, only this time he’s in the role of his gasmask-clad alter-ego Trait in a move that makes literally no difference whatsover. You’re left hoping that it would, as well; for as parabola’d up themselves as Car Seat Headrest can frequently be, there’s at least a snotty, punk-adjacent snideness to them at their best that’s at least aware of that, something that’s been all but removed here because it’s just not as necessary. The weird, off-kilter shifts are little more than roadblocks on the band’s shortest and arguably most straightforward album to date, regardless of how flagrant the grandstanding and seemingly redundant workarounds now are. That’s not saying that it’s a terrible album either, but at lest when they were on the cusp of totally plunging into their self-manufactured abyss, there was a tangible excitement factor that surrounded Car Seat Headrest. On Making A Door Less Open, that simply isn’t there, and while the album is more manageable because of it, it doesn’t make use of the space its high status grants it nearly as much.
To be fair, it makes sense why that’s the case, given that this album is essentially pieced together from spare thoughts over the course of the last five years surrounding Toledo’s gripes with fame and the life of a musician. Again, it’s an arc that’s become increasingly standard, particularly among indie musicians, and it would seem as though a certain amount of fine-tuning has gone into turning disparate thoughts into something that better fits the narrative; opener Weightlifters might be a mission statement of self-improvement and progression, but that quickly bottoms out as those thoughts begin to drop through an almost systematic rubric. It almost makes the anxiety on Can’t Cool Me Down or the succumbing to immense pressure on Deadlines (Thoughtful) feel rote, really only redeemed by Toledo’s dead-eyed drawl to serve as the album’s most stable pillar of strength that this is all coming from a place of genuine burnout. There’s more to like on Hollywood in its necessarily brash and scrappy attack on celebrity culture, or especially There Must Be More Than Blood, where Toledo examines the liminality between what he sees as a failure in the music industry and returning to a family who’d grow even further from him. It’s moments like this where Making A Door Less Open hits its peak, where the spiralling, half-focused ruminations begin to solidify themselves into notions that hold onto the theme, but have all the potential to slip away entirely. It might sound strange to criticise this album for not venturing into such instability more often, but it’s where the intrigue lies; otherwise, as Car Seat Headrest prove, they’re not too far removed from the indie-rock mean.
And you get the feeling that the supposedly ‘wide array’ of sounds on this album was supposed to offset that, even though Making A Door Less Open doesn’t necessarily integrate them as much as keep them relegated to the edge of the palette to ensure they’re still there but not doing too much harm. At the same time though, the doubling down on the wiry EDM buzz of Deadlines (Thoughtful) or the bigger, glossier indie-pop of Life Worth Missing stick out a lot more, to where promoting this album’s fractious nature instead of restraining it might have been a superior move in hindsight. Granted, the whirring nothingness of Hymn (Remix) and the flaccid Famous to end on the dampest note possible serve as suitable counters to that, to where it’s worth considering whether hinging so much on this genre-clash experiment was a good idea in the first place. It doesn’t really add a whole lot beyond haphazard spikes in the tracklist, and when the best moments are rooted further in a more traditional indie-rock style that Car Seat Headrest have become known for, it’s a bit of redundant pivot on the whole. At least there’s a bit more to appreciate when it’s integrated into Weightlifers or Can’t Cool Me Down for an extra dimension of sleekness, and when as an augmenting factor with the driving tone and taut percussion of Hollywood or the tense, expanding drone of There Must Be More Than Blood, that’s when the album really shines.
On the whole though, Making A Door Less Open is nowhere near the defining statement that Teens Of Denial was, and it’s hard to figure out what it is instead. It’s bitty and fractured by design even with the efforts made to paper over its explicit cracks, and a notably ambitious but crucially flawed execution jars heavily with a sentiment that’s resoundingly solid but ultimately too safe for where this band are on the landscape. And for some, while those juxtapositions might make this yet another album from Car Seat Headrest that wants ascend to those lofty heights of modern indie godliness, it’s too messy with no clear or consistent purpose for why that’s the case. That just leaves an album, almost appropriately, feels like another tile in the frequently tiresome mosaic of dull critic-bait indie, rising above slightly thanks to visions and expectations that do aim a bit higher and can occasionally make good on them. But Making A Door Less Open is far from a satisfying listen, maybe hitting that target in spots but unable to consistently forge something that feels worth returning to. Maybe that’s fitting given the content of this album, but if there was an album to fully hammer down how short-lived a hype cycle can be, and how easily they can be dismantled, it would be this one.
For fans of: Soccer Mommy, (Sandy) Alex G, Snail Mail
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Making A Door Less Open’ by Car Seat Headrest is out now on Matador Records.