“Hymn (Remix)” – Car Seat Headrest

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If you’re also a Car Seat Headrest fan, maybe you and I had a similar experience: one particular moment during your first listen to their new album, Making a Door Less Open, ruined your Friday. 

To be clear up front, I adore this album now. It’s only been out for six days as I’m writing this. It didn’t take long.

But that first listen. Shortly after midnight on release day, I got into bed, put on headphones, hit play. I was excited – this is the first proper new set of music from the band in four years – and apprehensive. We’d already heard four of the album’s 11 tracks (which is frankly too many to put out in advance of an LP, but that is the way of things now) and they were…okay? Maybe good, but also hard. They weren’t scratching the itch I was expecting them to, but maybe I needed to acquire a new itch. Maybe the full album would produce the itch.

Track 1 hits (“Weightlifters”), and it’s got a nice energy to it. It’s not as complex – maybe I mean melodically rich? – as my favorite Car Seat Headrest songs. But it works as an opener, sure. I go with it. 

“Can’t Cool Me Down” follows, the first single. It helps that it’s positioned as a comedown from “Weightlifters,” as the beat is contextualized in a new way. But compared to the version the band performed on their last tour, “Can’t Cool Me Down” still feels unsettlingly flat, unassertive. Where Will Toledo belts out the high notes of the chorus live, here he nervously sings around them or retreats into a delicate falsetto, the line “cool water on my brow can’t cool me down” transforming from an impassioned declaration of need to something more like barely-swallowed helplessness. 

Next up is “Deadlines (Hostile),” which occupies a similar emotional space while offering even less of a traditional repeating verse structure to latch onto (this is true for much of the album). 

Then comes “Hollywood,” the trickiest of the pre-release singles to navigate. It’s built around a big dumb guitar riff, the kind that generally implies “we’re having fun now.” But is it fun? “12-year-olds on pills waking up in beds of big producers.” Is that fun? Maybe in some kind of punk-political message kind of way? But there’s also the drummer, Andrew, in there yelling lines like “come see my movie / it’s kinda groovy,” and it sounds like a joke. Is this a joke? It kind of sounds like an Offspring song. Good god, is this an Offspring song?

At this point you, Car Seat Headrest fan listening to the album for the first time, are defenseless. You’re four tracks in, you haven’t totally gotten what you wanted out of the two new songs, and the two songs you’ve already heard are still lacking in some way. Is this my problem or the album’s problem? Turning my phone on to see if Pitchfork’s posted a review would probably be a bad idea, right?

This is when MADLO presents you with “Hymn (Remix)”. Toledo’s voice peels in at its most abrasive, screeching “feel it in my heeeeeaaaaaart” over laptop-chopped dance beats. The track goes on for three minutes like this, and it feels like longer. A darkness washes over you: this is a joke. Four years. You begin to accept it. Will and Andrew are doing their little jokey EDM side project and calling it Car Seat Headrest, and you’re staying up to put this in your head, and tomorrow’s Friday so you still have to get up and work (from home, to avoid the plague that’s killing everyone, like every day now). 

Fuck it, fine, what did those Pitchfork assholes say? 6 point fucking 6? Jesus Christ.

You listen to the rest of the album, but aside from the two other pre-release singles it only gets more obtuse, and “Hymn (Remix)” has already tainted whatever open-mindedness you’d brought in with you. 

You wake up the next day, and you’re in a shitty mood. And you’re mad at yourself for being an ostensible adult who’s in a shitty mood because he let an album ruin his Friday.

When have I felt like this before? It sounds absurd to say now but: Kid A. I was 15, and Radiohead was life. OK Computer was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me, and Kid A was the first album I had the experience of anticipating as an obsessed fan. I knew most of the songs already from live bootlegs – if I remember right, the only two titles that were complete mysteries were “Treefingers” and “Idioteque”. A segment of the online fandom, myself included, was convinced that “Treefingers” must be the new name for “Egyptian Song,” since that was clearly the best of their new material and it would be unthinkable to leave it off.

But they did leave it off. “Treefingers,” the first listen revealed, was four minutes of ambient feedback. And “Idioteque” was five minutes of Thom Yorke wailing on top of a drum machine. Where was “Egyptian Song”? Where was my “Karma Police”? What itch was any of this supposed to scratch?

This is the thing about so much of the art that ends up sticking with you for life: it pushes you to find the itch. Kid A helped me learn that. I was already in so deep, and felt so deeply about Radiohead, that I trusted there was more there. So on listen 2, and listen 3, I started listening differently, and allowing myself to feel differently. 

“Idioteque” in particular, which seemed like a joke at first because I didn’t know how to feel it – soon I did feel it, which opened the door to exploring feelings in ways that were unfamiliar to my pop-saturated teenage brain. “Idioteque” taught me how to feel through drone and texture, and it became my favorite song on Kid A. And all that happened in the first week I had the CD.

I sensed something like this was happening with Making a Door Less Open. I was angry, but it was an interesting angry. I wanted to figure out what was going on with this record, and why my reaction was what it was. To find different angles; to mine my now 35-year-old brain, and see if there’s anything new left in there to expose.

MADLO is interesting even if you don’t listen to it at all. Will Toledo has released four different versions of this record already: a streaming version, a CD version, an LP, and a digital download that follows the streaming tracklist while also giving you the CD and LP variant tracks (I recommend that one). 

Toledo has said the LP version is what it is because it had to be delivered by a certain date, which means it represents an earlier version of the album versus its digital siblings. This is a form of rock ‘n roll sacrilege: Toledo has undercut the seriousness of the all-important analog artifact. While connoisseurs fork out money for vinyl, the real final version of MADLO is the one kids are half-listening to on Spotify. And who’s to say that’s even final? When did Kanye release the final version of The Life of Pablo? Has he?

I’m surprised how little I’m seeing comparisons made between MADLO and Pablo. Hell, Toledo put it right out there, calling the last track on his album “Famous” – the same as the most notorious song on TLOP, the one where Kanye says he could probably fuck Taylor Swift if he wanted. But Will’s version of “Famous” is something altogether different: “Please let this matter / no one can see this / or know that I need it.”

For Kanye, there didn’t need to be a final version of TLOP. He redefined expectations around the album as an expression of power. He used the immediacy of streaming technology to expand his canvas through time and space, engulfing his audience along the way. Listeners could do with that what they wanted, but the album would be whatever Kanye said it was, and if he decides it’s something else tomorrow then that’s what it will be tomorrow.

Will is in some sense doing the opposite of this: inverting the dynamic from an expression of auteur omnipotence to a representation of personal anxiety that’s too severe to be contained by one format. Rather than demand the audience follow his lead like Kanye redefining his work on the fly, Toledo uses the space between mediums to expose his process. This is what was ready when the vinyl master was due, this is what I wasn’t quite satisfied with, this is where I arrived given a few extra weeks, and maybe I’m still not happy with it.

This kind of fundamental transparency isn’t new to Car Seat Headrest. Will Toledo built his band up from awkward solo teenage demos and live performances that are still available on his Bandcamp and YouTube pages for anyone to find. His early, self-released work overflows with barely edited ideas. One record passes the two-hour mark, and includes a 15-minute song that will probably never appear outside of Bandcamp because it turns into Neil Young’s “Down by the River” toward the end. It’s glorious.

Toledo’s oeuvre is also increasingly full of songs that are re-recorded, sometimes re-re-recorded. And it’s all just out there; the new canon coexists with the old. The band’s last wholly new LP, Teens of Denial, is the only one in their entire catalog that functions as a traditional, static rock artifact. And even that comes with an asterisk, since the first pressing had to be destroyed after Ric Ocasek withdrew permission to reference “Just What I Needed,” forcing a second version of the album to exist before it even hit shelves.

Unlike other contemporary artists who obsess over the shape of their legacy while they’re still creating it – say, James Murphy, or Quentin Tarantino – Toledo makes sure his catalog is anything but static, or able to be easily numbered (he actually did start out numbering his albums, but gave up after four). To cleanly quantify his canon wouldn’t suit the nature of his art. Allowing it to spill out, unimpeded by old models, every seam exposed, an insurmountable challenge for even the most dedicated fan to organize – that’s Car Seat Headrest.

What does it mean to make a door less open? It’s not the same as closing a door. The vulnerability that Car Seat Headrest is built upon isn’t a door that can be closed. So Will Toledo shares the burden of vocal duties with his bandmates for the first time. He blurs the lines between Car Seat Headrest and the comedic 1 Trait Danger project in which he gets to play the sideman. He literally dons a mask. And yet.

MADLO is the diffusion of Will Toledo’s core vulnerability across new channels. He’s restricted the listener’s direct line into his soul by diversifying the lenses through which aspects of his vulnerability can be observed. When you try to listen to MADLO like you’d listen to Teens of Denial, you feel like Toledo is obfuscating his humanity for the first time, and it’s frustrating. But the deeper you go, the more you realize the door being less open is only pushing the door’s contents into new parts of the house.  

Even “Hollywood,” superficially the least vulnerable song on the album, exposes a specific wound. Rather than a banal “let’s take those Hollywood elites down a peg” rant, “Hollywood” is a visceral rejection of what the world is being given in lieu of actual art, and the fast foodification of human experience that we’re beaten into caring about from childhood by unapologetically horrible people. This is an important topic to Toledo (see also “Beach Life-in-Death”). And anyway, it’s not Andrew Katz’s fault if he sounds like Dexter Holland.

This brings me back, finally, to “Hymn (Remix).” In truth, this is the most vulnerable moment on MADLO. On vinyl, “Hymn” is a stripping down of all pop structure and artifice in order to admit defeat to some unknowable higher power while experiencing a major panic attack. The remixed version that appears on digital formats questions the palatability of something so raw to the streaming audience – it won’t be heard, and if it’s heard then it won’t be understood, so let’s gut the animal and nail it onto a dance beat crucifix. Let’s turn one kind of breakdown into another. It’s devastating, and it might be the key to understanding the record.

The closest comparison to MADLO I can think of isn’t Kid A but Lolita Nation, the 1987 double LP by Game Theory. While more obviously maximalist than MADLO, Lolita Nation similarly uses its medium to subvert expectations in a way that reflects an absolute breakdown in certainty of what the artist, Scott Miller, is trying to express. He shares the burden of the album across his band, giving each member at least one track of their own, which only serves to amplify the profound existential anxiety that permeates every other song. Miller avoids serving up anything that resembles his calling card power pop until seven tracks in; he fills spaces between fully-realized songs with tape-warped fragments of his past and present work; and he concludes with an anticlimactic statement of self-deprecation. Like Will Toledo, Scott Miller was 27 years old when he made Lolita Nation. It wasn’t appreciated nearly enough, but those who appreciate it do so deeply.

My most recent listen to Making a Door Less Open brought me to tears. That’s certainly in part because of the sorry context in which we now have to consume it. But it’s also surfaced something else in me, something I get to scratch for the first time.

“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” – Car Seat Headrest

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Francesco Schettino was at the helm of the cruise ship Costa Concordia when it struck a rock off the coast of Tuscany in 2012. He abandoned ship – he claimed he accidentally fell into a lifeboat, oops! – and then he hid in a hotel while a massive rescue operation took place. 32 people died, plus another during the subsequent salvage operation. Schettino became a global symbol of cowardice, and was ultimately sentenced to 16 years in prison for manslaughter.

“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is not about Francesco Schettino. It’s about what drives a person, or maybe everyone, to the point of rejecting basic ethical behavior and personal responsibility. 

As with much of singer/songwriter Will Toledo’s work, the first section of the song is an indictment of his own depressed brain. He wishes he could feel motivating anger instead of numb defeat. He stays up late “out of some general protest” against no one, and refuses to get up in the morning. He inverts the chorus of Dido’s “White Flag” to swap proud defiance for self-pity: “I won’t go down with the ship… I have lost, and always will be.”

The song then swirls into a delightfully petulant rant: “How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself?” “How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?” “How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?” Continuing to pick up tempo into the song’s seventh minute, a new refrain is introduced: “I give up!” 

That becomes the recurring chorus through the rest of the track, as Toledo expands his focus from his own life to his entire broken generation and the society that broke it: “We got mad and we split the scene / Now we download all of our shit for free / It’s the new economy: we have nothing to offer, and we sleep on trash.”

Unfortunate name aside, Car Seat Headrest is the best indie rock act to emerge in the 2010s. At first listen it’s easy to dismiss them as a ‘90s throwback, with their lo-fi Pavement aesthetic and a singer who sounds a lot like early Beck. But the longer you sit with Toledo’s lyrics and dig into his absurdly extensive catalogue (CSH has released nine albums of original material, two albums of re-recorded old stuff after signing to Matador, a live record and two EPs, all in this decade), the more you realize this guy’s not aping anybody. If you need a historical comparison, a better one might be Pete Townshend: a prodigious aptitude for writing three-minute rock songs competing with a head so overflowing with ideas that the format has to expand to contain it all.