When Will Toledo penned the open letter that would accompany his latest album, he covered new genres of music, futurism and folk, and even a half-serious electronic side project. He titled the letter “Newness and Strangeness” and signed it with an alias — Trait.
Trait, Toledo explains, is an alter ego of sorts, a character the artist plays as part of a collaboration with drummer Andrew Katz called 1 Trait Danger. At first Trait was comic relief for Car Seat Headrest as the band recorded its newly released Making a Door Less Open, but the two endeavors soon permeated one another.
“A lot of the ideas for 1 Trait bled over to the Car Seat tracks, and vice versa,” Toledo writes. “You just can’t make music without first creating your own environment around it… sound’s always gotta travel through something.”
By the time singles from Making a Door Less Open surfaced, Car Seat Headrest had adopted Trait as a new visual direction for the band. He showed up in music videos and press photos, and even agreed to an interview with The New York Times. Many fans couldn’t help but notice Trait’s defining feature, a custom black gas mask that resembles a post-apocalyptic deadmau5 helmet. Toledo said wearing the mask is a way to circumvent stage nerves and “have some fun” with the music.
All that strangeness is symbolic of the new musical direction on Making a Door Less Open, which leads Car Seat Headrest away from the indie-rock-with-teeth of the band’s last two records. The new album is more electro-pop than alt rock, with tracks like “Weightlifters” and “Can’t Cool Me Down” featuring more synthesizers, drum machines, and production than your typical Car Seat cut.
Toledo strays even further from the norm on “Deadlines (Thoughtful),” a six-minute expedition into electronic dance complete with massive, oscillating synths and a four on the floor beat. It even has a bass drop. This track is not to be confused with the album’s third song on the track list “Deadlines (Hostile).” The hostile version evokes the angsty yet sensitive rock we’ve come to expect from Car Seat Headrest; the thoughtful version sees Toledo dipping his toes in EDM.
“Martin” is another stand out that effectively combines elements of old Car Seat Headrest with Toledo’s new creative vision. Starting with a sparse composition, the track builds to an explosive chorus of synth, guitar, layered vocals, and driving programmed drums. The finished product is pure pop, filtered through Toledo’s genius and enthusiasm for thinking outside the box.
Car Seat’s latest full length is a bold departure from a formula that has worked well for the band in the past, and that inevitably comes with songs that miss the mark. “Hymn (Remix)” is an unwelcome foray into drum and bass likely to be skipped over by many. “There Must Be More Than Blood” drags on for more than seven minutes, wrestling with Toledo’s pop sensibility and ultimately failing to hold interest.
Making a Door Less Open underlines a 27-year-old artist reinventing himself and moving toward a sound that defies labels. From the bitter, driving rock of “Hollywood” to the perky synth-pop on “Famous,” Toledo and Car Seat Headrest have given us a collection of uniquely fascinating songs, almost all of which stand on their own two feet.