What do David Bowie and Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo have in common? Besides incessant remastering and remixing of their older material, both artists understand the importance of creating personas to fulfill the needs of your musical ideas. With Car Seat Headrest’s newest album, Making a Door Less Open, Toledo has introduced us to the character of Trait, a government experiment turned rockstar in a similar vein to Ziggy Stardust. When asked why he brought his gas-masked alter ego into the Car Seat Headrest universe, Toledo said “You just can’t make music without first creating your own environment around it…sound’s always gotta travel through something. This time it was a mask.”
Luckily for us, this mask is the perfect conduit for this batch of musings on fame, society, and getting older; familiar ground to tread that sounds as fresh as ever thanks to new musical avenues and novel electronics. The first new Car Seat Headrest material in four years sounds older and wiser, but just as frustrated and just as fun. Album opener “Weightlifters” is a perfect example. Will Toledo is still the insecure and scrawny protagonist we’ve always known, despite his desires to improve himself. With an alien synth and programmed drums building up before the song explodes, we’re transported into Toledo’s psyche in a way his youthful fuzzed-out bedroom rock couldn’t. Toledo of 2020 may be a revered rock star now, but his insecurities remain, and are still just as relatable.
Being a hot shot rockstar has definitely shifted Will’s focus, as singles “Can’t Cool Me Down” and “Hollywood” show. On one hand, “Can’t Cool Me Down” shows a moody rumination on the mental toll that celebrity musicianship can take on someone; the refrain, “Hey, we’re not supposed to be here” perfectly encapsulates his feelings. However, the chilly bass line and reverb-soaked piano leads are thrown out the window when we hit “Hollywood”. A swaggering, frantic banger, “Hollywood” shows malaise exploding into downright rage, as Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz screams about Hollywood making him want to puke. The duality of these two songs shows a downright rejection of stardom both internally and externally, and this battle within Will and the rest of the band is prevalent all over this album.
An element of Will’s songwriting that hasn’t been diverted from is his need for human connection. Tracks like “Martin” show us the Will we know and love, beckoning to friends or possible lovers, looking to the figment of a character, “Justin”, for salvation, to pull him up out of the trappings of fame and into the peaceful life he once knew. We get similar musings on the track “Life Worth Missing”, where Will talks about crawling through a hole in his yard into a new life. Fame isn’t enough to separate him from his need to connect, his need to disassociate. He’s sick and tired of the fake, the superficial. This whole album is a rebellious middle finger to what the world wants Car Seat Headrest to be, and while some aspects of Will’s struggles are more foreign to us now, his reactions to them are still palpable and real.
The barn burner “There Must Be More Than Blood” is the final nail in the dissociative coffin; Will is reeling from his life, and lyrics like “And you’re grateful for the bus, it’s a place to sit down/ Like a spider in the winter trying not to be found/ No use trying to heal when you’re getting stepped on” cement the idea that success doesn’t give us happiness. It’s a long, drawn-out and fuzzy callback to the classic Car Seat Headrest sound, as if Will is fantasizing about his life 4 or 5 years ago, and we’re right there with him.
And just like that, with the final track “Famous”, the album is over. A danceable groove masks the downright depressing lyrics, as if we’re being told to dance through the pain. A soaring synth lead soaks and coats the vocals, and suddenly you’re in Will’s home town, reminiscing on the days before fame, before the legions of fans to cater to. In this song, Will beckons over and over again “Change your mind”, as if he’s asking for the fans and the critics to change their mind, to shun his music and let him get back to his quiet youthful angst. But now, at 26 years old, there’s no going back, there’s no changing the minds of thousands of people. We’re left mulling over the loneliness, the exhaustion, the frustration that Will is feeling. Making a Door Less Open is a jarring, explosive, expansive journey, and while our protagonist struggles to make it through his success, we as his fans are left with missing pieces, trying to assemble the puzzle of Will’s head with what he’s given us.
You can listen to the album here: