Album Review: Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open

[Matador; 2020]

Even back when he would sit in his car to record vocals for the earliest Car Seat Headrest albums, Will Toledo thought about his music in widescreen. This was displayed by the re-recordings of his lo-fi songs for Teens of Style, and hammered home by the blockbuster re-creation of Twin Fantasy, where he took his pre-studio opus and rebuilt it as the mammoth rock album he had always envisioned. It’s no surprise that as he has gained more experience working in a proper studio, the band’s sound has beefed out. Toledo has realised that he can take the band’s sound anywhere he can imagine – and that’s exactly what he’s done on Making A Door Less Open.

Although, it would be unfair to credit this entirely to Toledo, as this album is more than ever a collaboration with his bandmates. Drummer Andrew Katz, in particular, had a big hand in the sound of Making A Door Less Open, as he and Toledo worked together on weaving together songs that employ unusual production choices, dextrous samples and a diverse range of percussive sounds. It was Toledo’s express desire to make a record where each song was its own individual world, and while this means Making A Door Less Open may not have the narrative or musical uniformity of their previous two albums, it also avoids the fatigue that can set in when listening to those 70-minute behemoths.

Toledo has always been a lovably jaded ringleader, and Making A Door Less Open continues to dwell on his self-criticism and feelings of redundancy. What makes it a continuously compelling listen is how each song manages to use different sonic approaches to extract a new shade of his despondency. This can veer from the glistening sheen of “Can’t Cool Me Down”, which reflects his cold-sweat agitation, to the rampaging stomp of “Hollywood”, which embodies the singer who’s sickened by tinseltown’s false façade.

It also means that Making A Door Less Open has some of Car Seat Headrest’s most excoriating songs yet. On “Hymn”, Toledo grieves histrionically over life’s futility while organ echoes into a cavernous space, making it sound like he’s on his knees at the gates of hell (while the remixed version that appears on digitals sounds like he’s being pulled apart, atom by atom, and sucked into a black hole). “Deadlines” is a pop-rock song so tightly written it sounds like mechanical walls pressing in on the singer as he pleads for relief from his endless obligations – but the detailed instrumental construction ensures it’s an explosive joy to listen to.

There are also moments where Car Seat Headrest subvert Toledo’s dejection, using instrumental choices to bring beams of positivity into his gloomy mental space. This happens on the opening “Weightlifters”, where Toledo reels off his usual list of dreads, but the underlying synth tones soothe as he comes to the healthy conclusion “I believe / Thoughts can change my body / It dawned on me / Your body can change your mind.” The relatively simple acoustic bop “Martin” is a lovelorn ode to the power of lasting friendship, even after they’ve long disappeared, the rattling drum samples adding strength to the message of overcoming. On “Life Worth Missing” incandescent synths meet Toledo’s wistful memories and guide him out of numbness, upwards into an overwhelming feeling of cathartic redemption.

Then there’s the stately seven-minute “There Must Be More Than Blood”, where Toledo’s words tread a path through bitter days of regret and disillusionment. Hollowly buzzing synths and sky-searching guitars match him stride for stride until he comes to the earthly conclusion “There must be more than blood that holds us together / There must be more than wind that takes us away.” Maybe it’s not overly uplifting, but Car Seat Headrest convey a feeling of acceptance, and at the conclusion there is a tangible and healing sense of relief.

Toledo has said that, beneath all the bells and whistles, the songs on Making A Door Less Open are folk songs, and there is certainly some truth to that. The words may come from his interior life, but his frustrations and paranoias, and the way he expresses them, speak to a large number of us. Like folk music, they have the ability to connect us through shared emotional journeys, and they’re likely to spawn simplified versions by followers for years to come – at least, that’s what Car Seat Headrest would like.