Album Review: Car Seat Headrest – Faces From The Masquerade

[Matador; 2023]

Recorded live at Brooklyn Steel, Car Seat Headrest‘s Faces From the Masquerade captures a three-night sold-out New York City residency the band played between March 28-30th of 2022. The title, a nod to the band’s original tour announcement, which asked audience members to mask up and also invited fans to “accoutre yourself in whatever further costumery you please” for an evening of “music, dancing, and identity loss,” also alludes to a now familiar LED-eyed gas mask worn by frontman Will Toledo at shows. “Trait,” the alter ego he introduced while touring their last album, 2020’s Making a Door Less Open, sounds and acts like Toledo but, in his words, is a way to allow everyone (including himself) to take the focus off of Will Toledo for once. Or, and perhaps more candidly, marks a new version of Car Seat Headrest that shifts toward a more EDM, classic rock, and futurism-based sound than the band have ever explored. 

In typical Car Seat Headrest fashion, most of the songs on Faces From The Masquerade, which features favourites from their last three studio releases, are structured with a slow building intro before leading into a sustained peak that extends through the end of the track, which, also in their typical fashion. Toledo flatly observes in “Bodys”: “Is it the chorus yet? No. / It’s just the building of the verse.” Here, though, these eruptions are often altered slightly: take “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” or “Sober to Death”, where the climaxes through the ends of the tracks are performed slightly slower. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” pulls out a more pronounced electric guitar riff while “Sober to Death” sustains a consistently mellow tone during the its outro, both of which lean toward the classic rock sound that Making a Door Less Open began to explore.

The original lineup was joined on this tour by keyboard player Ben Roth, who helps inject this new sound into some of the older tracks, especially those off of Twin Fantasy. Perhaps to the dismay of some of the O.G. Car Seat Headrest fans, but these modifications only help them find a harmony between their older acoustic tracks and the new electronic. “Sober to Death”, for instance, trades its classic acoustic intro for an ever so slightly more electric one thanks to Roth’s keyboard. Changes such as this may be subtle enough to fly under most casual fans’ radars, but highlights not only their attention to detail, but their unrelenting desire to define their new sound. 

Yet, despite their insistence on creating a consistent flow, the live show’s authenticity is never compromised. While much of the crowd noise has been filtered out in favor of seamless transitions, moments like Toledo coyly stating “I need a drink of water. Sorry, I forgot to shave today” after “Fill in the Blank” or the crowd joining in as he repeats “Don’t worry / You and me won’t be alone no more” during the outro of “Sober to Death” in place of the original recording’s harmonized background vocals, help sustain the raw energy of the recording. Whether it’s an intentional shift to their sound or simply this raw energy, there’s a newfound liveliness to these recordings that their originals seemed to try to reach. 

Perhaps the most breathtaking moment is in “Hollywood”, when drummer Andrew Katz’ gritty lead vocals erupt from Toledo’s mellow warble with more power and soul than could be imagined from the original recording – and only further proves that live settings are where Car Seat Headrest best thrive. Faces From the Masquerade suggests they’re exploring the limits of their talents, tapping into features they’ve neglected on past albums. Or, it simply laments that the new electronic rock sound they established in Making a Door Less Open is here to stay. Will the old Car Seat Headrest sound ever make a resurgence? Who knows. But, it’s safe to say that as long as “Trait” remains their frontman, we can expect that the band will continue to surprise us.