When Car Seat Headrest began their opening set at Madison Square Garden in February 2019, they opened with “Can’t Cool Me Down,” a then-unreleased song that built up to a cheeky refrain: “Hey we’re not supposed to be here!” But, by all accounts, the indie rock band has long sounded like an arena act—complete with booming drums and squealing guitar intros and outros.
By many measures, Car Seat Headrest’s new album Making a Door Less Open, their fourth for Matador and 12th overall, sounds like the sort of record that could play well in large rooms like Madison Square Garden. It combines the ambitious live techniques they’ve honed over the last few years with newer electronic elements, like those on the revamped “Nervous Young Inhumans” from 2018’s Twin Fantasy redux. Making a Door Less Open may be an album seemingly made for arenas, but, unlike their past life-affirming, hands-in-the-air material, it doesn’t care to play to the nosebleeds.
That ambition is obvious on album opener “Weightlifters,” a song that puts the arena mentality front and center: “Put your heart on the target / They expect you to scream / Music blasts through the market / It’s the sound of the machines.” But instead of being like Dave Grohl and going on some lengthy diatribe about computers killing rock ‘n’ roll, Toledo embraces those sounds—glowing synths abound on “Weightlifters,” where hip-hop drum machines provide the backbone on skeletal lead single “Can’t Cool Me Down.”
In some cases it works. “Weightlifters” and “Can’t Cool Me Down” sound fresh despite lacking the cathartic choruses that made the band’s first three Matador releases, particularly Teens of Denial, so damn loveable. They represent a successful sonic experiment. “Life Worth Missing” offers a nice middle ground between the new and old Car Seat Headrest as shimmering synths build to a rousing finish.
The more traditional Car Seat Headrest songs are actually the less interesting bunch on Making a Door Less Open. “There Must Be More Than Blood,” a track that features the same squealing guitar jams that were prevalent between songs on their 2018 tour, doesn’t really go anywhere across its seven minute run time. “Martin” glimmers with a clean, upbeat acoustic guitar, and it could be the most approachable song Toledo’s ever written (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it still leaves something to be desired).
Worst of all is “Hollywood,” a “how did this make the album?!” head scratcher on what could’ve been their mainstream breakthrough. Knowing Car Seat Headrest’s discography, you might assume the cliché guitar riffs and incredibly bland anti-Hollywood lyrics (“Hollywood makes me want to puke” is unforgivable) are some sort of tongue-in-cheek dig at alt-rock radio, but it works only about as well as Arcade Fire’s Everything Now lowlight “Chemistry,” another song that unsuccessfully played with irony. Each line throughout “Hollywood” is horrendous, from “Sick of drinking / Sick of drugs / Sick of fucking” to “They don’t talk about the 12 year olds on pills waking up in beds of big producers.”
The lyrics throughout Making a Door Less Open aren’t as indefensible as those on “Hollywood,” but they’re rarely as relatable as anything they’ve released prior. Gone are the lines like “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it / Haven’t seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.” Instead, Toledo’s songwriting is streamlined too much, which has adverse effects on the album itself. With fewer refrains and memorable melodies to latch onto than ever before, the lyrics, which find Toledo grappling with fame and deteriorating relationships, revert to well-worn rock ‘n’ roll territory, not really offering anything new.
All that said, Toledo is frequently frustrated with listeners, particularly critics, ingesting his lyrics as autobiographical, as this New York Times profile suggests. He’s currently attempting to occupy a new gasmask-wearing alter-ego named Trait, referencing his frankly unlistenable comedy-EDM/rap side project with drummer Andrew Katz called 1 Trait Danger. But it’s tough to figure out how the two projects interact on Making a Door Less Open: The concept—could this be a concept album?—is simply vague at best, made even more confusing with at least two separate tracklists.
There’s a very real chance this would all make more sense with the new, deconstructed live set the band has been talking up for quite some time. But because of the coronavirus-induced concert shutdown, we may have to judge the album solely on the recording rather than the theatrical live set it was apparently made for. And that’s a shame, because Making a Door Less Open isn’t as memorable as its predecessors on its own: Toledo’s vision as a whole never feels truly fleshed out, representing the first legitimate misfire in the career of one of this generation’s most talented indie-rock songwriters.
Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.