Car Seat Headrest ‘Making a Door Less Open’ – Review

12 May

Back in 2014, the same year they signed to Matador, Car seat Headrest released ‘How to Leave Town’ on Bandcamp. A diversion from their normal form of indie rock, ‘How to Leave Town’ included the fourteen minute synth oddessy ‘the Ending of Dramamine’ and the spoken word ‘Is This Dust Really From the Titanic?’ That they branded ‘How to Leave Town’ an e.p, despite it clocking it at an hour, spoke to the band’s ambition and their audacity. This particular achievement faded somewhat into obscurity however, when only a few months later Headrest released their debut major label album ‘Teens of Style’. New album ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is a callback to ‘How to Leave Town’, in the respect that it returns to a largely synth driven, electronic sound. But in most ways the album – the band’s first release of original material in four years following 2018’s ‘Twin Fantasy’ (a collection of rerecorded bandcamp demos) – lacks so much of what made that, and the group’s other recent albums, so great.

Will Toledo is a writer in whom several traditions converge; both a Matador slacker in the lineage of Stephen Malkmus and a product of the 21st Century Blogosphere, he manages to embody both traditional and experimental values. You see both sides of him on display here. These songs are as taut as any he’s produced. The production is clean and dynamic, and the arrangements are rarely as combustible as in the past, for better or worse. When it all comes together, as on ‘Weightlifters’, ‘Deadlines’ and ‘Martyn’, the band sound absolutely primed to headline the festivals they’ve been slowly climbing the bills at. These highlights may be modest in comparison to past glories but their charms are not insubstantial.

Although still prompted by imagination and an instinct for the wonderfully ridiculous, Will Toledo envisaged ‘Making a Door Less Open’ as a direct collection of songs rather than a unified, extended statement. This doesn’t particularly play to his natural strengths. You can usually work out what these songs are about, and where they are going, within the first 30 seconds or so. That is a striking development when you consider how unpredictable his writing has been in the past. He has shaved off unnecessary musical and lyrical excess, in an effort to hone in on something more instantly gratifying. The extent to which you think he has been successful will largely depend on how much stock you placed on his old way of working. It certainly doesn’t seem to pay off on lead single ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’, a dull and clunky track most notable for an awkward falsetto and the amateurish programming.

The next song is ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’, which, despite being the catchiest track on the album, is also at the heart of what’s frustrating about it. The song is largely about the pressures of getting an album written and put out. It’s descriptions of writer’s block are insightful and poetic (‘got a canvas as white as the moon but when I see it at night, it’s a sickening blue’) but when depicting the business side of the bargain (‘now I’ve got another question – if we run out of time can we make an exception for the piece that needs completion?’) it becomes crunchingly self aware and tedious. The song appears in two forms on the album; the electric rock version and later as a barely recognisable beat and siren driven rendition. There is a third version that appears exclusively on the vinyl in a kind of dubby, melted down mode, and a fourth, acoustic version that appears as the CD bonus track. They each have different lyrics and musical arrangements. It’s far, far too much of a good thing.

There is something cloying about this and the other pretences we are expected to endure; the fact Will Toledo is conducting interviews in a gas mask (an affectation that’s even more unwelcome considering the current pandemic) or that he’s labelling the album a collaboration with his alter-ego ‘Trait’. it’s more than a bit trying and pretentious. Even the running time (47 minutes) feels like a conceit to prick Headrest’s tradition of grandiosity. As a consequence of all this artifice, the album feels laboured despite its brevity; so even a straightforward song like ‘Hollywood’, with its silly refrain and d.u.m.b riff, feels more like an exercise in form rather than something impulsive and spontaneous. ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is self-consciously a sharp left turn but in moments like this it can’t help feeling like a strained, and largely superficial one.

Perhaps Car Seat Headrest are a victim of their own success. They have after all made three of the best indie-rock records of recent memory – ‘Teens of Style’, ‘Teens of Denial’ and ‘Twin Fantasy’. These albums felt like important statement albums to be ranked alongside ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, ‘Channel Orange’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in the canon of courageous, sprawling, inventive auteur records of the 2010’s. In comparison ‘Making a Door Less Open’ feels slight and insubstantial; a sparodiclly exciting but mostly frustrating experiment that doesn’t really work. An album lacking the hooks, the surprises, the tempo shifts, the unexpected chord changes and the odd tonal juxtapositions of those older albums. Everything about ‘Making a Door Less Open’ feels more linear and predictable.

It begs the question – who is this for? The blaring riff at the centre of the aforementioned ‘Hollywood’ swings for the bleachers but the song seems to mock the very people who might find enjoyment in it. With its sticky but condescending lyrics and a refrain of ‘Hollywood makes me wanna puke’, Toledo makes the rather *duh* point that the general public is complicit in commercial America’s hold over us. He has all the conviction of a fired up undergrad without any nuance or empathy. At least that song is catchy; elsewhere things get legitimately ugly. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting enjoyment from ‘Hymn’ where Toledo’s chopped up, out of tune warbling collides with a chintzy drum machine and irritating synth buzzes. I have similar feelings about the sounds Toledo uses on ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’, Deadlines (Thoughtful)’, and ‘Famous’. The smudged notes, sketchy arrangements and cheap aesthetic choices render ‘Making the Door Less Open’ a genuinely unpleasant experience at points.

Inevitably though, when one of your favourite artists makes a new album, good or bad, there are things to savour, and reminders of why Will Toledo is often considered to be the finest indie songwriter of his generation. I can hear what he’s trying to achieve and understand that conflict within him – the ambition to play against his pre-existing strengths and explore new and exciting impulses. The ambition to make something more accessible and universal perhaps. Surely an album as lacking in refinement as this wasn’t an attempt at commercial success? On ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’ he says ‘I am not so shallow. I am not that deep’. And maybe that’s the ultimate problem. Despite his ambitions, ‘Making a Door Less Open’ is not the direct, accessible ‘collection of songs’ that Will Toledo set out to make. Nor is it a particularly meaningful or moving album in his traditional mode. It’s peculiar, it’s obtuse, it’s interesting, it’s ameturish. It’s ok. But, like Toledo says, It’s not shallow and it’s not deep – and the middle ground is no place for Car Seat Headrest.

6/10

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