Will Toledo is hard to pin down. Even Toledo himself struggles to do it, a friction that has sparked some of his most explosive songwriting. As Car Seat Headrest’s driving force, he’s a rock star in a world that isn’t made for rock stars anymore. Car Seat Headrest are part of a dying breed, an indie band on the rise at a time when most of the old pathways from blog buzz to world-conquering fame no longer exist. In five years, they’ve gone from bedroom obscurity to festival mainstay, becoming emissaries for 21st century indie rock even as they’ve innovated within that lineage.
Toledo is ambitious, but he’s also mercurial. He followed up his breakout record by updating an older record to sound, in his words, less like an indie rock album and more like a pop album. In a recent New York Times profile, we’re told a story about him flying from his home base in Seattle to the Matador Records offices in New York to deliver a PowerPoint about the conceit behind his new album; we hear from his label head about Toledo’s desire to “make an album that had the sonic capability of competing with some of the other new pop or hip-hop acts at the Coachellas of the world.” That sort of mythmaking feels like it’s from a different era — Toledo is hyperaware of music history, and he knows what kind of reaction that narrative is going to provoke in those that have taken up Car Seat Headrest’s torch as one of the last bastions of rock.
Following that line of thinking, his new album Making A Door Less Open is a classic rock star move — a pivot to synths, an embrace of pop, songs that balk at all the attention his band has received. But his world-conquering drive is antithetical to a lot of what he’s singing about on the album. He finds himself navigating some tough situations in regards to his burgeoning fame: maintaining privacy while still being an honest songwriter, figuring out what it means to be successful without having to give up every part of yourself that makes you human.
It’s easy to read into some of these songs, make them about Toledo reckoning with being the frontman of a big, buzzy band. In some ways, he invites that — with a seething track called “Hollywood” about the emptiness of big-budget entertainment, with a final song called “Famous” whose lyrics yearn for a more attuned life — but Toledo always has a lot more going on in his songs than any one clear-cut narrative can contain. These songs are applicable to anyone that is struggling to find definition within themselves. Toledo is worried about the legacy that he leaves behind — the album is filled with songs about the desire to change, to become better, to have the person that people see reflect whatever is actually happening on the inside. “I believe that thoughts can change my body,” he repeats on album opener “Weightlifters,” a self-actualization mantra for someone that has spent more time living in their own head than living in the real world.
“Please let this matter,” he begs on the album’s closing track. “I need a break/ I need a life that’s right/ I need to wait/ I’m tired of coming home sick/ Someone will care about this/ Please let somebody care about this.” That’s some sad shit, a bummer note to leave an album on, lacking all resolution. But the way Toledo delivers those lines makes it sound euphoric, knowing that he does have the ability to make people care. “Change your mind, night to night,” he sings over and over again. It’s vague enough to be about anything, but I’ve been thinking about it as Toledo allowing himself the opportunity to both embrace his position as a generational voice and regret it because of the anguish it causes him. Toledo seems conflicted, about his position in the world and his responsibility as an artist. It’s all there in the title: How do you close a door that’s already been opened?
Since we can’t go back in time, we have to march forward. Despite his ambition, Toledo has never been comfortable with the spotlight. Now, he’s at a level where he can try to hide himself from it. Making A Door Less Open comes with a gimmick involving a gas mask, which Toledo plans to wear on stage whenever he is allowed to tour again. (The idea feels even more dystopian now that we’re all wearing masks nowadays, something that Toledo couldn’t have possibly predicted.) The mask is attached to a persona called Trait, which stems from an off-the-cuff side project with his bandmate and collaborator Andrew Katz that embraced EDM and electronic experimentation. There are some big concepts going on in the background of Making A Door Less Open that Toledo has been thinking about — stuff about song ownership and his position as frontman, the idea that these tracks could have gone in a dozen different directions and that whatever landed on this record isn’t necessarily their final, or even best, form. That’s compounded by the different tracklists and musical arrangements that appear across the streaming, vinyl, and CD versions of the record. It’s a lot to take in, but when has Car Seat Headrest not been?
But even with all the extracurricular baggage, Making A Door Less Open is a lot less self-serious than Teens Of Denial. It’s a lot more fun. The big sonic addition to the album is the prevalence of synths, though even that’s not new if you dig deep enough into the Car Seat Headrest back catalog. What is new is the immediacy of these songs. Toledo’s wordy, interior musings lend themselves well to dance music. His trademark drawl has some new life breathed into it. Making A Door Less Open is an itchy album, constantly jumping around between different ideas. The album sounds frantic and a little jittery, but Toledo manages to keep it oddly calm amid all the noise. The project’s aversion to traditional song structures means that each track leaps off into new places. Toledo isn’t reinventing the wheel with his electronics, but he is building himself a new playground to mess around in. The band feels more free to experiment under the auspice of a more collaborative album.
That means a song like “Hymn (Remix)” can happen — it sounds like Toledo and company just messing around and seeing what happens, like tapping your throat when you’re bored and seeing what garbled sounds come out. It appears in a more straitlaced form on the vinyl version of the album, but the “Remix” is pure unhinged chaos, Toledo’s exhalations morphing into a pounding breakbeat broken by sliced-up guitars and beat drops. It’s a wonderfully odd song that sounds huge, one that you can easily imagine booming out of the speakers on a festival ground, echoing out across a huge space. But Toledo’s vision of Coachella-ready pop is anything but ordinary. He pulls off the same trick with “Deadlines,” which actually appears in three wildly different versions across the different album formats. “Deadlines (Hostile)” is a straight-forward rock song, “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” has a wriggling groove, and “Deadlines (Acoustic)” is, well, acoustic. “Thoughtful” is my favorite, a club-ready thump that descends into utter madness. It’s chilly but passionate, Toledo repeating “Oh, compassion/ Is transforming me into…,” the phrase left frustratingly unfinished. It’s tempting to imagine all three versions of “Deadlines” as one big sonic Frankenstein, where maybe some of those ellipses form one cohesive puzzle, but as they stand separately, they’re still invigorating.
And despite the dancier songs, Making A Door Less Open still has its fair share of bread-and-butter Car Seat Headrest tracks, introspective rock rippers that blossom into locked-in, feverish monologues. “Weightlifters,” “Life Worth Missing,” and “There Must Be More Than Blood” are all punchy and epically constructed, filled with booming drums and interlocking guitars and the same urgency as the band’s Teens material. They’re filled with the same sort of penetrating soul-seeking as those other songs, too. “I thought one day/ I thought I’d find a hole/ In my own backyard that I’d never seen before,” he sings on “Life Worth Missing.” “Follow it down underneath that fence/ I’d come back up on the other side/ Live another life.” That search for something more has plagued Toledo for a long while now. On “There Must Be More Than Blood,” he emphatically tries to convince himself that this is not all there is, tries to find definition in a world that’s constantly shifting. “I could see myself clearly for the first time in a while,” he sings. “There was nothing but lines, nothing but outlines/ My gut dropped like a stone/ But I heard another voice say/ We all walk alone.”
Even more exciting are the songs where you can sort of sense the old Car Seat Headrest underneath but are presented as something totally new. “Can’t Cool Me Down” is sweaty and blown-out, Toledo subbing in smooth synths for his traditionally jagged guitars while retaining all the intensity of the songs he built the project on. “Martin” is bouncy and constantly moving, a song about all the possibilities that exist in trying something new. “Just when you think I’m gone/ You change the track I’m on,” Toledo sings to some unknown other. “Just when I think I’m done/ You burn me up before the dawn.”
That you could hear all the other potentialities in these songs seems to be Toledo’s point, or at least one of them. Transformation is something that’s hard to capture in the moment — you really only know it’s happened after it’s finally done, or maybe the process never ends. Toledo has made an album that’s bleary, empathetic, desperate, and at times a little messy. Making A Door Less Open embraces those contradictions that we as humans can thrive from: You can be a private person and make blisteringly confessional music. You can wear a mask and bear your soul. A door doesn’t have to be all the way open or all the way closed; maybe it can just be halfway.
Making A Door Less Open is out 5/1 via Matador. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Pure X’s languidly assured return Pure X.
• Damien Jurado’s confident and plainspoken What’s New, Tomboy?.
• Johanna Warren’s raw and spectral Chaotic Good.
• Austra’s slinking and poppy HiRUDiN.
• Converge frontman Jacob Bannon’s new metal supergroup Umbra Vitae’s debut album Shadow Of Life
• Diet Cig’s tuneful and gleaming Do You Wonder About Me?
• Dramarama’s first new album in 15 years, Color TV.
• Man Man’s driving and fantastical Dream Hunting In The Valley Of The In-Between.
• The Cramps tribute album Really Bad Music For Really Bad People: The Cramps As Heard Through The Meat Grinder Of Three One G.
• Konradsen’s Rodeo No. 5 EP.