Goes out of its way to obscure the notion of Car Seat Headrest as a manifestation of Toledo’s life and emotions.
When Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest project assembled a full band and unleashed Teens of Denial in 2016, it prompted a belated exposure to the prolific bedroom songwriter so immense that it’s hard to believe that the band is just now getting around to a true follow-up. It also, unfortunately, prompted a wave of belated critical evaluation that homed in on the nature of Toledo’s observational, introspective storytelling, making the common mistake of taking such lyrics as fully autobiographical. Toledo aired his frustrations over the increased scrutiny over his songs, and as the title would suggest, Making a Door Less Open goes out of its way to obscure the notion of Car Seat Headrest as a manifestation of Toledo’s life and emotions. Its lyrics willfully elude any concrete sense of identity, much less confessional intent. The LP itself even exists in a state of flux, offering significantly different mixes for some songs on its physical and digital versions.
The album also shows a major stylistic shift for an artist who only just expanded his sonic palette to include an entire indie rock band. Electronics dominate the album, with guitars largely used for embellishment amid pounding synths and metronomic drum machines that further de-emphasize a sense of authenticity. The album establishes this sardonic, combative attitude out of the gate on “Weightlifters,” in which Toledo sardonically tosses off his image as a sullen, frail loner, noting how his newfound fame makes him want to get a rock star look. “My face burned red, then I woke up feeling like shit / When I saw my ordinary face / I should start lifting weights,” he drawls in his baritone over whirring synths and a stuttering hi-hat beat. More and more electronics wash out the track as Toledo revels in his kiss-off to critical over-examination, spitting lines like “Put your heart on the target / They expect you to scream.”
In its best moments, the album shows off an unexpected versatility in Toledo’s songwriting. “Deadlines (Hostile)” slinks amid darker thoughts about others (“I was thinking people never change / But there’s a new taste of dread that I cannot explain / In the thoughts that make up my life”) but also cheerfully interpolates a quotation from the Human League’s “Fascination.” An alternate version of the track, subtitled “(Thoughtful),” trades that tracks propulsive electronica for drones that retool the lyrics into a kind of mantra chant. “Martin,” a love letter to lifelong friendship, displaces self-identification through using character names from The Secret of NIMH, complicating an otherwise quintessential Car Seat Headrest tune that grapples with love and how it can overcome moments of lonely self-doubt.
On the flip-side, most of Toledo’s lyrical strengths reside in the fragile soul and wandering observations of his rambling style, and his attempts at making impersonal pop here can often fall flat. “Hymn” is little more than a drone in its vinyl version, but a remix awkwardly reconfigures it as a stuttering bit of drum n’ bass that renders the refrain “Feel it in my heart” in a high, nasal whine redolent of Thom Yorke, making for a version every bit as detached and inert as its spacey original take. And for an album predicated on embracing fakeness as a means of dealing with celebrity, it’s baffling that Toledo would pen, much less include, “Hollywood,” a dismal mockery of wannabes and phonies who haunt L.A., complete with the refrain “Hollywood makes me wanna puke,” the sort of cro-magnon sentiment that Black Flag not only conveyed but parodied decades earlier.
As an extroverted act of confrontation that reacts to somber reflection, Making a Door Less Open might be the most defiant indie statement since R.E.M. followed up Out of Time and Automatic for the People with Monster. Yet where that album used its scuzzy rock and persona-swapping to offer fragmented insights into the band and its songwriter, this LP succeeds so well at self-sabotage that, were this still an era where physical media reigned, it would doubtlessly line used CD bins for alienated newly converted fans. Whether recording solo or with a band, Toledo has never excelled at writing the kind of lyrical or musical hooks necessary to make up for removing his most compelling element. Indeed, besides the odd highlight like “Weightlifters,” the album’s best moments come from the songs that hew closest to the Car Seat Headrest formula. This is most evident in “There Must Be More to This Than Blood,” an instant-classic CSH epic that sidewinds through impressionistic glimpses as buzzing synths and electric guitar washes fill the space that used to hang like dead air around Toledo’s long story songs. It’s hypnotic yet propulsive, the sonic undercurrent of slowly modulating instruments providing a steadiness that contrasts with Toledo advancing forward narratively until it all boils over into a thrilling catharsis. It’s here, and only here, that Toledo finds the perfect balance between what makes him great and what he’s trying to do to complicate and expand that narrow range.