by Chris Hatch
*For this review we covered the streaming version of the album*
Will Toledo had chipped away at the artistic coalface for years before his band’s 2016 album, Teens Of Denial, saw him breakthrough from cult, underground obscurity to become the figurehead for a generation of disenfranchised, misunderstood, and often isolated music fans. The intervening years have seen Car Seat Headrest rise towards venue-filling adoration, along with the release of a redux version of Twin Fantasy (a re-recording that was no nostalgic folly – it was a fully fledged demonstration of how far CSH have come as band), and live album Commit Yourself Completely, a document of the 2018 EU/US Twin Fantasy tour that saw the band joined onstage by Naked Giants, leaving Toledo front of stage, guitar-less and (maybe reluctantly) wearing the crown of indie-rock saviour.
With the commercial/creative scale almost perfectly balanced for CSH, there has been intrigue as to how Toledo would continue to stretch himself artistically under the new found gaze of critics and fans alike – Making A Door Less Open is really his first new album since Teens Of Denial’s widespread critical acclaim, and Toledo dealt with some of that pressure by adopting the guise of Trait, from his electronic side-project with CSH drummer, Andrew Katz.
When vague details of Making A Door Less Open (abbreviated to MADLO) started to be drip-fed through Twitter, there was a mixture of intrigue, excitement, and perhaps a bit of uncertainty. Fans of Toledo’s work are by their very nature open-minded, but fears about how an ‘electronic album’ would fit in CSH’s canon surfaced here and there, and questions about quite how different the multi-format versions of the album would be were also proffered. In response to the latter, Toledo assured fans that different versions of the album would be released for streaming, CD, and vinyl formats, and that each one wasn’t just a slightly re-mastered version, but instead a totally different beast, complete with unique mixes and a track list he best felt suited the medium.
It would seem that the speculation and pressure weighing down on the release of MADLO has created a diamond. It is a phenomenal album. Fans of CSH will instantly recognise it as such – Toledo’s proficiency in unique, self-knowing observations about himself and the world around him are as achingly relatable as ever, and the complex, multi-parted songs buzz along with the cathartic, seat-jolting sense of previous works. Delving into a CSH record has always been an exercise in shock and surprise – song structures pull you back and forth, middle-eights, choruses, and heart-bearing snippets of revelation lurk around every corner. MADLO is no different – the electronic flourishes that Trait icily daubs throughout the record don’t dominate, but instead add another layer to peel back. And it’s this act of peeling back layers that is still one of CSH’s most affecting, and arresting facets – on a first listen MADLO imbues a racing giddiness that compels you to strain your neck and reach to see what is coming next, but, as always, it is with repeated listens that it’s songs and themes start to etch themselves into your very bones. Lead single, Can’t Cool Me Down, is a shining example of just this – its dry, flat production, and heady, sirens-call vocals are jarring in a way that sounds both nothing like and exactly like CSH all at once. But it takes a while for its hypnotic, sickly, claustrophobia to really burn itself into your brain.
There has always been a charm in the self-produced work that Toledo and his band have made, and while MADLO eschews traditional major label recording techniques it is undoubtedly the ‘biggest’ sounding album in CSH’s back catalogue. While Can’t Cool Me Down gets its point across with an almost robotic sterility, there are still arena-sized moments that peak along the records eleven track timeline – Hollywood blisters along with acid-tongued pissed-off-ness – Toledo letting his ire loose against the backdrop of the kind of big, dumb rock riff that maybe started off as a tongue-in-cheek joke, but will inevitably be the soundtrack to the kind of joyous chaos CSH harnessed on their last tour.
Given their uncompromising nature, unconventional sound, and almost impenetrable back-catalogue, CSH would be low on the list of candidates for the big time. In some regards, Toledo must think he’s had more success than he has had any right to – his recent works crossing over to the fringes of the mainstream in the most welcome of surprises. Rather than adding an extra weight to his load though, it seems that Toledo has relished the pressure and expectation surrounding the latest CSH album. The shackles are well and truly off, and Toledo has created the kind of record that is the pinnacle of his work so far – masterfully teasing together the elements of Billboard-troubling rock, spacious, slow-burning dynamics, soul-searching intimacy, and, more than anything, songs that embrace his new found fame without compromising his artistry. Lyrically, musically, and in its very essence, Making A Door Less Open is an album that sees Car Seat Headrest confidently and assuredly burst through the stratosphere.
Secret Meeting score: 90
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