By Alex Szeptycki
Car Seat Headrest’s drive to show us something fresh permeates Making a Door Less Open, and that is admirable.
Making a Door Less Open, Car Seat Headrest
No band has parlayed Bandcamp stardom into critical success with the flair of Car Seat Headrest. The brainchild and solo project of Virginia songwriter Will Toledo has progressed from fuzzy Lo-Fi rock (recorded in Toledo’s bedroom) into a full-blooded purveyor of indie rock. Along the way, the band has become increasingly ambitious in their songwriting. Yet through it all lyricist Toledo has retained his sharp, angsty wit. Their latest album, Making a Door Less Open, gives us the band making seismic changes to their sound and identity. Car Seat Headrest has decided to spice up their rock with a wealth of diverse and disparate musical sounds, including elements of EDM, synth pop, and soul. The album is defined by a spirit of adventurous experimentation.
The results of these stylistic escapades are mixed. By adding in so many kinds of music, Car Seat Headrest embraces an eclecticism that is exhilarating at times, but also disjointed. The album works best when the new is woven with skill into the slick but complex songwriting that made the band’s earlier work successful. When the mix-and-match doesn’t work, the result is disappointing, and a bit of a mess.
The first track on Making a Door Less Open, “Weightlifters,” goes for the bold. A wavering electronic buzz indicates what is to come. The tune emerges, slowly, out of the drone: periodic guitar riffs and synth lines slowly coalesce around electronic drums. Toledo sings “I woke up, feeling like shit when I saw my ordinary face.” (He’s always had a knack for nailing the ennui of early adulthood.) “I should start lifting weights,” he quips, perhaps hinting at an urge for self-improvement. A slo-mo instrumental frames the melancholic mood appropriately. The song is skeletal, but clever enough to pull off the bare bones approach.
Songs like “Can’t Cool me Down,” however, use the same strategy, and they don’t satisfy nearly as well. The latter is a stop-start track that takes up Toledo’s performance anxiety, and it eventually bogs down. The staccato, xylophone-like synth present in the verse meshes poorly with the fuzzier, more distorted synth that comes in during the chorus. The transitions between these disparate sounds are shaky, to the point of derailing the musical flow. In addition, Toledo adds a spoken word portion on the bridge, and the heavy-handed rhythm of his delivery doesn’t fit with the track. Too many pieces are put into play here — and they don’t fit together well.
In fact, Making a Door Less Open feels as if the band came up with too many ideas; they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) properly explore all of them. Take “What’s With you Lately,” a down-tempo acoustic tune sung by Will Ives, the band’s guitarist and backup vocalist. The song is a mournful ballad about leaving significant people and places: at one point, in a soft tone, Ives sings “there’s less and less here that seems like a reason to stay.” The acoustic change of pace is welcome, but it has not been prepared for — the nuance comes out of nowhere, so it lacks emotional power.
Other ideas the band embrace fail even more spectacularly. On “Hollywood,” a brash track about the evils and excesses of Tinseltown, almost nothing makes sense. Its painfully generic hard rock riff lacks the expected energy — the tune doesn’t go anywhere. Toledo brings in (again) spoken word for the verse, and the choice is predictably misconceived. The chorus, a repeated mantra of “Hollywood makes me wanna puke,” is delivered via a scream by Toledo and drummer Andy Katz. The effect never rises above the grating. Other lyrics, such as “Everywhere I go I’m oppressed by these energies,” are solemn and self-important. Car Seat Headrest takes itself far too seriously to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, when the band’s risky ideas are fully thought out the results are far more pleasing. “Martin” is a high-energy pop song that nimbly combines contrasting guitar sounds — jaunty acoustic and distorted electric. Toledo sings about an on-and-off relationship and its effect on him. His cry of “Just when I think I’m gone/You change the track I’m on” is convincingly affectionate. Similarly, “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” draws on juxtaposition to generate strikingly different sounds. Here, a pulsing, rhythmic synth is paired with a more high pitched, melodic tone that resembles an electric guitar solo. It’s as if MGMT met Van Halen; the pairing is surprising and striking.
It makes sense that the strongest tracks on Making a Door Less Open benefit from the kinds of winding song structures that Car Seat Headrest showcased in their earlier work. “Life Worth Missing” is a rewarding slow burn — without a chorus — that spotlights a driving snare drum as it accompanies different synth lines that slowly build in volume and energy. In this tune, Toledo is desperately searching for meaning, singing “My eyes are blurred, the clock is ticking/I’m coming up short in a life worth nothing.” He brings a welcome urgency to the existential crescendo. When the noise finally reaches its peak, wallowing in earfuls of yelling and synth noise, the payoff is exhilarating.
The album’s penultimate offering, “There Must Be More than Blood,” is also a winner. It’s another slow-moving tune, but its melancholic mood is genuinely menacing. A slow, deep synth is supported by a brittle, piercing guitar riff that fades out over time. Amid this atmospheric instrumental, Toledo tells the story of familial conflict in the South: tradition and prejudice butt heads with the independence of youth. “There must be more than blood that holds us together,” he laments, wondering if the generational divide can be bridged.
There is something to be said for artists choosing to move in different directions. The drive to show us something fresh permeates Making a Door Less Open, and that is admirable. No band wants to sink into a rut. Unfortunately, Car Seat Headrest’s departure from its customary strengths fails as often as it succeeds. This makes for a conflicted listening experience: it is sometimes exciting, sometimes half-baked, even ill-advised. Still, there are enough thrills here to make this bumpy ride with Car Seat Headrest worth taking.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.