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Album review: Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open (2020).

Written by Album reviews, Music

Making a Door Less Open is the newest release from indie rockers Car Seat Headrest, and also one of their most divisive.

Initally the solo project of frontman Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest gained an almost cult-following online for his introspective and personal brand of music. His first releases in 2010 were noisy, lo-fi, and experimental – his first four albums (1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively) coming out within four months of each other. With 2011’s Twin Fantasy, the same lo-fi aesthetic was elevated with an ambitious lyrical and musical concept based around duality and mirrors, which made incredible buzz amongst internet music subcultures when Will guerilla-marketed it on 4chan’s /mu/ board.

Fast-forward to 2016. CSH, with an impressive record of self-releases under the belt and signed on to the label Matador (Pavement, Sonic Youth), come out with Teens of Denial. Up until MADLO this had been the most recent new material heard from the band – 2018’s release had been a hi-fidelity re-recording of Twin Fantasy. Teens of Denial had also been the first release to sound like a band rather than a solo project, though it was still very clearly the work of Will Toledo.

2020. Making a Door Less Open. By now CSH have completed the Twin Fantasy tour, teaming up with Naked Giants to form a a live act capable of performing the rich and dense instrumentation of the album. I mention this as MADLO is the first release in which Car Seat Headrest truly feels like a band, a group of musicians working together rather than backing for Will Toledo.

Making a Door Less Open.

As an album, MADLO marks a change of pace for Car Seat Headrest. What was once a group/project epitomising indie rock in the 2010s has now welcomed wider reaching influences that, however controversially amongst fans, has started to beckon what seems to be a newer sound.

Will Toledo has always lamented slightly the lo-fi sound of his records – born from necessity rather than aesthetic choice – which he felt did not express clearly enough his musical vision, hence his studio re-recording of Twin Fantasy. It seems now with MADLO that he is, with the resources of his label and larger fanbase, beginning to actualise what he wanted alwasy to create.

Most interesting about the new sound on MADLO is the EDM influence. Working closely with drummer Andrew Katz, progenitor of musical project 1 Trait Danger whose background lies in electronic music, Will Toledo has included not only more synths than ever before in a CSH record, but tracks that are no longer rock music at all. This has, somewhat unsurprisingly, upset fans of CSH who feel like this is too much of a diversion from what they have come to expect of CSH. Further complaints has been directed at the lyrics. Poetic lyrics and overarching concepts have always been a mainstay of CSH, though MADLO feels much more like a record focused on the music, and erratic at that.

I’d contest these criticisms. The electronic sounds and wide-ranging influences remind me very much of CSH releases ‘How To Leave Town’ and ‘Nervous Young Man’, albums I believe are underrated within the ouevre of Will Toledo. Understandably if you’ve been exposed to only the more recent CSH records – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face), Teens of Denial, Teens of Style – you may be justified in thinking MADLO doesn’t sound like a CSH album. But it does. It sounds like HTLT and NYM, and that’s a good thing.

Mostly MADLO sounds like an attempt to push the boundaries of what Car Seat Headrest have done, and for the band to have more fun with music – epitomised in Will’s decision to perform future live shows in costume. Tracks like ‘Weighlifters’, ‘Martin’, and ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’ showcase Ethan Ive’s guitar like never before. Tracks like ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’ and ‘Hymn’ flip this rock sound on its head, allowing Andrew Katz to exhibit his skill as an EDM producer. The two versions of Deadlines (stand-out tracks for me) – ‘Hostile’ being an alt-rock anthem and ‘Thoughtful’ being an almost dubstep banger – makes clear that these influences in the band can co-exist and bounce of each other to the benefit of the music. The track ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’ is one of the band’s most danceable yet.

What MADLO does is highlight what has always been Will Toledo’s least talked about skill – his uncanny ability to write what is essentially a perfect pop song. ‘Martin’ and ‘Life Worth Missing’ may not be the most innovative songs ever, but they sound good. I think fans of CSH can often forget that a song or album can be about just that.

Sure, other critiscisms can be levelled at MADLO which is why it isn’t getting a higher score than it is. Some of the tracks feel a little unfinished, and erratic influences on tracks makes the listening experience uncohesive. However, I allow this. It appears in press releases that MADLO is somewhat of an experiment for the band, with Toledo and Katz intending each track to have its own distinct energy. In response to this I find it much more enjoyable to consider MADLO a compilation of singles, rather than an album. It works a lot better this way.

Altogether, Making A Door Less Open is understandably divisive, but ought to be an interesting turning point in Car Seat Headrest’s career. It’s fundamentally an album on which the band are trying to have more fun, and to try new things out. MADLO is let down slightly by the fact it’s an album but many of the songs are, as separate entities, undeniably very well written. I’d recommend fans of CSH who feel disappointed by MADLO to re-consider its place in the band’s catalogue after listening to How to Leave Town and Nervous Young Man, albums I believe it to succeed spiritually.

7.5/10

Last modified: 8th May 2020

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