Closing the Door on an Opportunity

"Making a Door Less Open" is the new album from Car Seat Headrest — singer/ songwriter Will Toledo, guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Dalby, and drummer Andrew Katz.
Carlos Cruz

Out gay singer/ songwriter Will Toledo released 11 albums under the name Car Seat Headrest, playing all the instruments on them, from 2010 to 2015. While attending college in Virginia, he dropped them on Bandcamp, slowly building up a following. He murmured songs like “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fag” and “Heartless Dick” into a four-track recorder from the back seat of a car (which led to the project’s name). This underground buzz led to a deal with Matador Records.

Once Toledo had access to a wider audience and a real recording budget, he returned to some of his older songs on “Teens of Style.” Car Seat Headrest became an actual band, fleshed out by guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Dalby, and drummer Andrew Katz (and several additional touring members). But until now, the band has only recorded one album of new songs for Matador, “Teens of Denial.” It mixed influences from their ‘90s precursors at the label (especially Guided By Voices) with emo and classic rock. The band’s impulse to make themselves small had disappeared. Instead, Toledo engaged in long-form storytelling like “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem),” which spends five and a half minutes describing a teenager’s bad trip.

Car Seat Headrest’s new album squanders Will Toledo’s promise

Then the band re-recorded the 2011 “Twin Fantasy,” a concept album about a young man and his older male lover. It’s taken four years to get a real follow-up to “Teens of Denial.” The “Car Seat Headrest are going to save rock’n’roll” hype the band received in the mid-2010s has died down. “Making a Door Less Open” makes a predictable step, embracing a more electronic sound. Car Seat Headrest recorded two versions, one with live instruments and one with electronics, and decided to mix the two together. But the album’s mix and production are still full of homemade weirdness.

The band is not afraid to sound cringey. It’s a shame that “Making a Door Less Open” sounds like a demo from a group that still hasn’t worked out how to change its style. They’re drawing heavily on Toledo and Katz’s side project 1 Trait Danger. Tellingly, Toledo sings about the pressures of making this album on “Deadlines.”

“Twin Fantasy” was based on Toledo’s own life, but he is now playing a character called Trait rather than writing about his own experiences. “Hollywood” has proven to be the album’s most popular advance single. Toledo talk-sings a diatribe against the corruption of Tinseltown, relating his increasing disgust as he takes a subway ride. The chorus “Hollywood makes me want to puke” sounds like something a 16-year-old fronting a punk band would come up with. And the vocals and arrangement turn screechy, canceling out its strengths. The lyrics’ aim at the film industry’s exploitation of young people’s dreams holds a degree of righteous anger, but the song is a mess.

When “Weightlifters” begins with an extended drone over a faint drumbeat, it signals that we’re not in for a repeat of “Teens of Style.” The song is based around a synthesizer loop that wanders as though as it’s going in and out of tune, even if Toledo’s vocals bring back a fairly classical sense of craft. When Toledo sings, “Music blasts through the market/ It’s the sound of machines,” he could be talking about himself. The production and song structures on this album subvert its more mainstream ambitions.

“Can’t Cool Me Down” could be a recent Tame Impala song, with catchy hooks played on marimba and synthesizer, but it begins with drums played uncomfortably loud — a running problem on the album — and an overly busy vocal arrangement. The song runs on too long to really work as the funk/ pop banger it’s aiming to be. “Hymn” is intentionally frustrating — an intro to a song that never arrives. The more attractive ballad “What’s With You Lately” also ends just when it seems to be getting started.

Will Toledo went from a period of intense creativity at his own pace to a deal with one of America’s largest indie labels and an arena tour opening for Interpol. Recording an album that will be perceived as a major statement must be terrifying, and “Making a Door Less Open” comes across as a subversion of Car Seat Headrest’s road to stardom.

But even if I don’t like it much, it’s the most adventurous music the band has released on Matador. But it’d be an understatement to say “Making a Door Less Open” doesn’t play to Car Seat Headrest’s strengths. The best songs, like “There Must Be More Than Blood” and “Life Worth Missing, ” pull off a 2000s take on New Wave. Toledo’s skill as a songwriter remains, but the band is incapable of pulling off the more complex song structures and experimental production it’s aiming for. Instead of a breakthrough, “Making a Door Less Open” is a trainwreck.

CAR SEAT HEADREST | “Making a Door Less Open” | Matador Records | Drops May 1 | matadorrecords.com/car_seat_headrest

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