As one door closes another one flings open
Will Toledo needed a break from himself and the Car Seat Headrest prog-machine he’d made. Praised for his breakthrough 2016 Teens of Denial, an indie spangled, guitar chewing, 90’s flag, without a doubt his biggest success yet, Toledo turned away from the hype as much as he embraced it. Back and looking for a way out of the commercial jail cell, a pool the indie world might now expect him to be swimming in, Toledo introduced us to Trait – a gas-mask wearing alter-ego – and a new album, Making A Door Less Open. Here’s the outcome – Car Seat Headrest, you’ll never take the backseat, but there is a new driver, and you might just have changed cars too.
First off, Making A Door Less Open sprawls of inconsistency. The tracklists change from vinyl to digital to CD and different formats have different cuts for different tracks. How do you grab a hold of an album when we’re all hearing slightly different things? In reality, it’s quite easy, musicians have been doing this for ages now, and as we’ve seen a challenging of the ‘traditional’ album in recent times, whether that be with a lashing out of double records, split releases, or in this case, variety, Toledo has every right to throw his tracks in the air and see where they fall. Let them huddle in the corner, let them bathe in the sun, there’s no intention here, no record persona, no overarching meaning. It’s just Toledo or Trait should we say, and his wanderings.
The variety feeds the music. There’s a vast stylistic range to Making A Door Less Open, one surely less definite than on his albums of the past. Opener “Weightlifters” sets the start for an album that remains to be pretty inexplicable. You’ll just about have found some sense in the wheezing synths before total structure appears from thin air. Whether it’s Toledo or Trait, the man behind Headrest’s sound has always known how to make something out of nothing. “Weightlifters” actually starts to take on a pretty comfortable chorus as the six-minute mark approaches, but as it draws to an end with what can only be described as feedback stuck on repeat, things seem a little suspicious. Fly on says Toledo, stay here says Trait.
“Can’t Cool Me Down” recalls Headrest’s more favored sound, those heartily sad melodies that simmer underneath a depressed voice and contemporary production, actually much of the album revels in this sound, a sound Headrest has, over the years, grown from Bandcamp blues to something unmistakably his own. “Deadlines (Hostile)” is hauntingly cool, “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” is dizzying, sisters to the same synth party. In fact, together they make one of the record’s best explorations. They’re strikingly galactic, and while grounded by Toledo’s subdued rasp, they transcend his presence at the same time. That has always been one of Headrest’s greatest downfalls – Toledo feels too much a part of the music. Now, of course, he’s the one who’s making it, and if anything an artist should be entirely a part of the music they make, but sometimes Headrest reaches a point when its brilliance, its originality and its youth is demeaned by Toledo’s heavy voice, and his heavy heart. Trait, however, seems to be giving his music more space. Sometimes you create something so alive that it needs to be left alone, and you’ll find that more all over this record. The empty instrumentals are where Making A Door Less Open feels it’s most genuinely beautiful.
The whole latter half of the album from “What’s With You Lately” & “Life Worth Missing” just gets better and better. It forms the perfect meeting place for Teens of Denial’s tender sentiment and Headrest’s newfound experimentalism. There’s a liberty across the final tracks that is really uplifting. The music just feels good. It’s like Toledo, or Trait, or whoever he really is, has finally found a way of cohabiting his music without making it cry tears. “There Must Be More Than Blood” is as far away from the usual density that hovers over Headrest, it’s quietly rhythmic, confidently sweet, surely restrained. Picture yourself watching the sun go down, except it doesn’t hurt when you stare into the light. Sure, there’s less direction on this album, less cohesion than projects before, but that somehow feels like the key to all its success. Making A Door Less Open is Car Seat Headrest’s best album to date. Few artists can, and will, respond to success as bravely as Will Toledo just has. As one door closes another one flings open.