Sometimes the only thing more difficult than making an instant classic is figuring out what to do next. For Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, whose 2016 album Teens Of Denial was one of the best indie-rock LPs of the previous decade, this process has dragged on for several years. Though unlike a lot of artists who have been in this position, Toledo hasn’t wasted time doing nothing. He’s worked throughout this fraught period, though at times it’s seemed as though he’s rigorously chasing his own tail.
In 2018, Toledo released a re-recorded version of one his greatest early LPs, Twin Fantasy. Originally put out seven years earlier on Bandcamp, Twin Fantasy was already an epic song cycle, though Toledo could now afford to lavish it with the spoils of a bigger production budget and his own improved skills as a record-maker. But as impressive as the Twin Fantasy redux was sonically, the project ultimately felt pointless, like tracing over a beautiful drawing with a more expensive pen. Instead of focusing on his next step, he was obsessing over “improving” an old album that was already great.
It turns out, however, that all the while Toledo was also working on a proper follow-up to Teens Of Denial, which finally arrives today after four years of tinkering in the form of Making A Door Less Open. It is the epitome of an “I don’t know what to do next” record, similar in some ways to the music U2 made in the ’90s after Achtung Baby, specifically in how Toledo has inevitably pursued the “electronic” detour that’s de rigueur for ambitious guitar acts, and also because he’s adopted a MacPhisto-like alter ego to free him from the spotlight’s glare. (More on that in a moment.)
To his credit, Toledo has truly hit upon a new artistic direction, dramatically simplifying his song structures and favoring sprawling, ambient soundscapes over overstuffed classicist rock. While markedly less dazzling than Teens Of Denial, Making A Door Less Open succeeds modestly because Toledo opts to not top his masterwork, instead carving a deliberately bumpier, less consistent path beyond it. This won’t be your favorite CSH record, but it will probably be the one you’re tempted to defend as “underrated.”
Actually, Making A Door Less Open is three slightly different records — the version that lives on streaming platforms is arranged differently than the vinyl and CD versions, which also have altered takes of a few tracks. The most substantial differences occur on a track tellingly called “Deadlines”: The digital album includes two versions of the song — including the best version, “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” — while the CD has one album track and one “bonus” acoustic take, and the vinyl sticks with just one “Deadlines.” (While I implore you to support your local independent record store by purchasing a physical copy, the best version of Making A Door Less Open is the digital one.)
Confused yet? One wonders if Toledo himself is also a bit bewildered. A recent New York Times profile painted the 28-year-old wunderkind as personally diffident and artistically bold, with the former quality sometimes undercutting the latter. This pertains especially to Toledo’s decision to conduct this press cycle under the guise of a new persona, Trait, which includes wearing a “Darth Vaderish” mask, even when doing an interview with a journalist over Zoom. The inherent awkwardness of this gambit — Toledo apparently decided to stop wearing the mask halfway into the conversation — is reiterated by its unfortunate timing. Somehow the gesture of donning headgear in order to comment on the nature of celebrity and the mass-entertainment industrial complex has less power when we all have to wear masks in order to go to the grocery store. The extraordinary became mundane in the space of single indie-rock album campaign.
Toledo front-loaded his distaste for indie celebrity by putting out the snotty, electro-punk “Hollywood” as a single. The track is important to Make A Door Less Open only in the sense that it’s the product of Toledo’s collaboration with CSH drummer Andrew Katz in the jokey side project 1 Trait Danger, which opened a creative portal for Toledo into the worlds of EDM, hip-hop, and improvisational music. Beyond that, however, “Hollywood” is among the very worst songs that Toledo has ever released, a charmless piece of obnoxious dreck that sounds like something Beck might have spent 10 minutes on during his Midnite Vultures period before moving on.
Fortunately, “Hollywood” is hardly indicative of the rest of Making A Door Less Open. Up until now, Toledo has tended to pack a dozen good song ideas into a single massive track, with scores of hooks and time-signature changes complementing that density of his lyrics. Making A Door Less Open, in comparison, embraces space. Rather than long songs made up of tuneful fragments, the new album has either long songs that stick with the same zone-out drone for several minutes or punchy pop songs that hit with more directness than any previous CSH album.
Much of what was special about Car Seat Headrest is inevitably lost in the process. Nothing on Making A Door Less Open rises to the anthemic swell of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” from Teens Of Denial. At the same time, the mechanical menace of “There Must Be More Than Blood,” MADLO‘s best track, displays a newfound patience for creating a slow-boil simmer, in which Toledo’s deadpan vocal about feeling spiritually displaced by a profound personal change (“You were playing your music but you got drowned out / You go back to the old house but you’ve been locked out”) cuts against an unending post-rock groove spiked with screaming guitar squeals. This song, like “Deadlines (Thoughtful),” recalls David Bowie’s prog-funk hybrids on Station To Station, as well as CSH’s own “The Ending Of Dramamine,” one of the very best songs of their Bandcamp era.
Elsewhere, Toledo proves adept at writing straightforward and highly accessible indie-pop songs, whether it’s the hopped-up pop of “Weightlifters,” the spiky punk-folk of “Martin,” or the moody, National-like balladry “Life Worth Missing.” The most surprising aspect of Making A Door Less Open ultimately is how not alienating it is. Put another way: This is Will Toledo’s mask record?
Yes, it addresses matters of personal identity and how the internet can undermine your sense of self-worth. But it rarely delves as deep into those subjects as previous CSH releases. Next to Teens Of Denial, it feels glib, like using a mask as a metaphor … for hiding yourself. On its own terms, however, Making A Door Less Open is an enjoyable enough indie-pop record that for now, sadly, won’t be heard in the large theaters and festival spaces it was designed to dominate.
Making A Door Less Open is out now on Matador. Get it here.