After seeing Car Seat Headrest perform live at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, a senior citizen who attended the show enthusiastically gushed to me, “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and its name is Car Seat Headrest!” echoing Jon Landau’s famous remark after seeing Bruce Springsteen play Harvard Square. There was a magic buzz in the air that night. Stories like this abound over the internet, as fans and critics have celebrated the power of the band’s performances.
So it only makes sense that Car Seat Headrest put out a live album. Rather than follow the more conventional route of releasing a single live show or selections from a residency at a particular venue, group leader Will Toledo selected nine songs from over 50 gigs from around the globe recorded during 2018. The sites include several American towns including Kansas City, Olympia, Portland, and Columbus as well as one from Wales and two each from France and England. The disc features some stage banter (but not too much) that helps identify the locations and lots of appreciative noise from the various audiences.
The tracks on Commit Yourself Completely are among Car Seat Headrest’s best known. There is a powerful version of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” with lots of amplified feedback, a quietly intense “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, and a trippy conversational rendition of “Drugs With Friends”. Toledo sounds comfortable disclosing innermost and intimate states of conscious. Car Seat Headrest also covers Frank Ocean’s “Ivy” with its lyrics of love and hate and lost youth. Toledo sings with an ache in his voice over a sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment. He comes off as naked and vulnerable. For a guy who was once so insecure that he recorded his music alone in his automobile (hence the band’s name), this suggests how much he has grown as a performer.
Most of the cuts are five to seven minutes in length, long enough to build to climaxes but short enough to maintain interest. There is little improvisation or hot-dogging by the band members and enough noise to rock hard when the song calls for it. The two longest tracks frame the album. It begins with the 10-plus-minute “Cosmic Hero” recorded in Cardiff that starts with stray instrumental noises as if the band is just warming up for the first two minutes and 20 seconds before Toledo sings, “If you really want to make it last, you have to commit yourself completely.” As this is where the album’s title comes from, it suggests Toledo is uprightly pledging his duty to the audience. He’s putting it all out there.
The album ends with a loud, 13-plus-minute version of the epic too scared to come out of the closet love song “Beach Life-in-Death”. It’s a weird choice for the final cut with its final chorus of “The ocean washed over your grave / The ocean washed open your grave” before ending abruptly. It may offer a sense of finality but not one of closure, like a concert without an encore. The intent is clear. Indeed, there are too many pro-forma curtain calls. It’s a truism that one always wants to leave an audience longing for more. But the record would have been better served by more track, even a short one to provide a respite before the silence.