Car Seat Headrest’s ‘Making a Door Less Open’ returns indie to its roots

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

Our Take: 3.5/5 Stars

Since its heyday, indie music has shifted away from what it was formerly known for: independence. The genre was once defined by bands and artists operating and performing as outsiders without the oversight of commercialized record labels. Now, the term serves as a catch-all for a broad, eclectic variety of alternative and rock music, often coinciding with mainstream popularity as in the cases of Vampire Weekend and The Killers. Where the genre seems to have lost its original meaning, one modern band stands out as truly independent: Car Seat Headrest.

Frontman Will Toledo — a pseudonym — founded the band in 2010, releasing twelve albums on Bandcamp before eventually signing with an independent label. They remained in relative obscurity until 2016’s “Teens of Denial,” which caught the public eye. Since, Headrest has even performed on late-night shows, like “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

To date, the band has had a distinct aesthetic. Each of their albums has been characterized by a grunge vibe that has been absent in music for decades. For lack of a better descriptor, Headrest carries a bit of a nerd persona, reminiscent of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Their songs, like 2016’s 12-minute depression anthem “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” defy convention and norms like Modest Mouse. And emo lyrics about love, mental health and growing up make them a rather mature version of Blink-182. Almost all of these comparisons almost belie Headrest, however, as their ambitious, clever lyricism is full of thoughtful insights and self-referentiality.

On May 1, the band released their first completely original album in four years, “Making a Door Less Open.” Much of the conversation around the album emphasizes Toledo’s discomfort with fame and live performance. The result is numerous innovations. For one, Toledo now dons a mask — unrelated to COVID-19. They also have released different versions of the album across different platforms, wherein the vinyl is different from CD and Spotify. Perhaps most notably, though, Headrest added a strong electronic element into the fold.

In a sense, “Making a Door Less Open” is far more interesting than it is a hit. It is certainly not bad in any sense; the album is actually pretty rewarding across multiple listens. But the talking points around it are far more intriguing.

Spanning 48 minutes in total, the new release opens with “Weightlifters,” a song of realization that “thoughts can change your body” and “your body can change your mind.” The electronic addition is on full display from the beginning with sirens in the backdrop and a synth-drum beat. This sound is continued in the next tune, “Can’t Cool Me Down.”

“Deadlines (Hostile)” is perhaps the most vintage Headrest track on the album. Electronic components take a backseat to their traditional rock form — mumbling verses of self-ponderance and elevated chorus repetitions set to a grunge vibe.

The next songs “Hollywood” and “Hymn – Remix” carry frenetic energies, each bring mechanistic elements back to the forefront. But where the repetitions sound almost hypnotic on the first listen, subsequent plays lose their luster.

One of the album’s finest, “Martin” combines sounds that do not ordinarily go together. A traditional acoustic guitar is set against a metronome-like drum beat and clever sound mixing. Representative of their highly intelligent songwriting, the song is about turning the page on mental health and unhappiness only to relapse once again.

“Life Worth Missing” stands out as another exceptional work on the new album. The song fuses together drone sounds over a mumbling self-exploration. Without a chorus, the lyrics meander through ruminations on lives not lived. But as on “Martin,” the track concludes with the recognition that starting anew is impossible and that one must come to terms with oneself. Toledo continues this process on the metronome tune “There Must Be More Than Blood,” in which he grapples with his relationship with his family.

The last track on “Making a Door Less Open” — or at least on the Spotify version — puts everything together. Full of a machine-like cacophony, “Famous” concludes the personal journey with a callback, repeating, “Change your mind/Did you change your mind?”

It is hard to separate “Making a Door Less Open” from the Car Seat Headrest context, both for better and worse. Without understanding the innovative changes undergone by Toledo’s project, the introspections and realizations might fall flat. Put into a discography and narrative, though, the ambitious choices just fail to shine as brightly (or depressingly) as earlier works. The electronic elements serve this self-referentiality well, retreading past ground under new eyes. Insider knowledge always enhances the appreciation of Headrest, as it does with most artistry, but that condition could be held as a slight from non-fans.

Ignoring this, the latest album from the indie band proves rather unique, insightful and cohesive as a music project. A few tracks are not worthy of much attention, but the highs reveal Car Seat Headrest as an innovative, independent band refusing to let anyone but themselves define their sound and narrative.