In the four years since the acclaimed Teens of Denial hit streams, Car Seat Headrest‘s Will Toledo, Andrew Katz, Ethan Ives, and Seth Dolby have been busy. They’ve released a re-recorded and reimagined Twin Fantasy (2018); a live album, Commit Yourself Completely (2019); an intimate TIDAL music documentary, I Haven’t Done Sh*t This Year (2018); and at least as many madcap social media posts as there are songs in their already expansive catalog. (And all this to say nothing of associated act 1TraitDanger!) They’ve also, in these last few years, reimagined their writing and recording processes, incorporating new sounds and techniques. The result is a new record that pushes their lo-fi signature into newly polished (and labyrinthine) space: Making a Door Less Open.
Released through indie giant Matador Records, Making a Door Less Open invests in the psychic thickness of life’s tiny, everyday moments. Think Proust’s madeleine chased with light drugs and distortion pedals. Using stark compositional contrasts to explore the twin faces of joy and sadness, the project marks a notable shift away from the lo-fi net grunge Toledo pursued on Car Seat Headrest’s numbered albums in the early 2010s and toward a new set of genre-bending experiments with future funk and electropop.
Lyrically, the record’s ten songs—discrete episodes exploring everything from style biters to Hollywood superficialities—all add up to a sense of where inner life and the outer world meet. Through daydreams, interior monologues, and unanswered addresses, the band explore the frequent (and often unacknowledged) commingling of despair and silliness; so too do they focus on the ways that the surreal and the fantastic are increasingly structuring the contemporary mundane.
Take, for instance, the elliptical, image-rich meditations of “Life Worth Missing”: “When we’re strung up hanging / From the knots we allowed / We call up our angels / To cut us down / “If you could be proud / Of anything you’ve done / What would it be?” / Then they disappear / And we are up in the clouds.” Or the pithy, allusive critiques of “Hollywood”: “You’re gonna wind up back home / Where the fear splits in two like Moses / into Mansons and Monroeses / Logic and hypnosis / good and evil / only people / they don’t talk about the / 12-year-olds on pills waking up in beds of big producers.” Or the multiply mediated queer longings of “Martin”: “Justin / There’s no answer / In the end I know / There is no answer / When I’m high on things that bug me / The morning news and instant coffee / I’ll forget and forget / And remember and forget / I will never forget / The way you made me feel.” Heard in sequence, these floating reflections, memories, and impressions swirl into a non-linear narrative of opposites—a psychic cloud held together by lightness, heaviness.
In effect, with Making a Door Less Open, Car Seat Headrest once again achieves that rare feat of musical engineering: the creation of rich environments that foster feeling, not dictate it. Sonically, the band achieves this through bright musical arrangements that almost always diverge from the austere, detached reflections of the lyrics, undercutting them with bounce. On this front, the examples abound: listen, on “Can’t Cool Me Down”, for instance, to the smiley, upbeat musical idea surrounding lyrical reflections on mental illness. Check out, too, the bulk of “Famous”, where 9th Wonder–esque samples and Diplo-inspired machine-stomp come to clothe naked lyrical despair. These compositional tensions—difficult to pull off without seeming cheeky—combined with the album’s future-pop yearnings and meticulous electro-acoustic weaves, all make for a multi-faceted listening experience, for a project that rewards repeat encounters.
That all leads me, for the moment, to “Hymn”—a taut, haunting song about midway through the album. (Think Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” meets Like a Villain’s “Bast”.) As much a private prayer as a desperate address—”If I give this up, will I be saved? Will my life be spared? What will take its place?”—”Hymn” is, interestingly, one of the only songs on Making a Door Less Open that offers itself up to listeners without self-commentary baked into its musical structure. On it, an organ drones; a distorted guitar sputters; atmospheric echoes hang in the air like nacreous clouds; and Toledo’s vocals, Cobain cracked and vocoder thick, take on the quality of shattered glass. Unnerved, unrestrained, unexpected—it’s all surprisingly direct. What to make of straight-on anguish amidst a tour de force study of indie tragicomedy?
One answer might live in an artist’s statement Toledo released to accompany Making a Door Less Open. In it, Toledo, quoting Bob Dylan on honesty and mediation (and, specifically, on the usefulness of masks, which Toledo now wears while performing), reflects on the possibility of direct communication through art:
“‘If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth… if he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.’ He never actually wore a mask on stage, so I don’t know why he said that. But I decided to start wearing a mask for a couple of reasons. One, I still get nervous being on stage with everybody looking at me. If everyone is looking at the mask instead, then it feels like we’re all looking at the same thing, and that is more honest to me. Two, music should be about enjoying yourself, especially live music, and I think of this costume as a way to remind myself and everyone else to have some fun with it.”
Lightness and heaviness, comedy, and tragedy: in their old-school oscillations, a possible solution to “Hymn’s” riddle, and perhaps a key to Making a Door Less Open itself. Because Toledo’s artistic concerns have long focused on honest self-expression—and because Toledo came of age as an artist in the expressive haze of Web 2.0, which, even on the best days, was a trippy consumerist masquerade—his efforts to make masks mentionable seems an important step in keeping his wailings unironic. And through a zany new costume, a mysterious persona, and a set of infectious songs, he reminds us, too, that the hard work of (un)masking should be fun, that “music should be about enjoying yourself.”
Now I should say, too, that Making a Door Less Open is also a landmark record in the Car Seat Headrest catalog for at least one more reason. It’s arguably the first of the band’s full-length records to acknowledge at every level of its structure that Toledo is not the only member of the band. Katz (drums), Ives (guitar), and Dolby (bass) all brought new ideas to the table in the four years this new record gestated. And in particular, Katz, who is also the mastermind behind the meta-modern (and exceedingly bonkers) 1TraitDanger project—which, as writer Katie Ingegneri explains, is thoroughly entwined with Car Seat Headrest’s latest experiments—brought sleek EDM production techniques to the mix and new creative energy out of Toledo.
“We were in our own little world [while making this record],” Toledo writes in his artist’s statement, “free to try any idea we wanted. A lot of the ideas for 1 Trait bled over to the Car Seat tracks, and vice versa.”
The result, after all that effort and play, is a glittering look at our everyday fantasies, our patterns of style and denial.