Over the course of a decade, Will Toledo has gone from making homemade albums with his vocals cut in his car to becoming a major force in indie rock with his group Car Seat Headrest, and that didn't happen without growth, change, and a willingness to evolve. So it comes as only so much of a surprise that 2020's Making a Door Less Open, his first album of new songs since 2016's breakthrough Teens of Denial, is a dramatic stylistic change-up from his last few releases, though some fans might still raise their eyebrows at how different this sounds. Much of Making a Door Less Open was recorded by Toledo and CSH drummer Andrew Katz, who have an electronic side project called 1 Trait Danger, and here the effectively sloppy indie rock of Teens of Denial gives way to a cleaner and more exacting soundscape dominated by keyboards and rhythm machines, with guitars still in the mix but not dominating as they once did.
Unlike Teens of Denial and Twin Fantasy (the 2011 album he re-recorded in 2018), Making a Door Less Open lacks a narrative concept that links the songs; the tracks exist in a similar emotional space, but there's no through line to this album. If there is a theme to this set of songs, it's that success hasn't been everything Toledo was hoping for. While angst has played a big role in his songs from the start, the adolescent anxieties and confusion of Teens of Denial have been replaced by the uncomfortable emotions of adulthood and a severe wariness of his place in the larger world and the circle where he has placed himself. He's riddled with self-doubt on the opener "Weightlifters," he's disgusted with the ugly and venal world of "Hollywood," he's at odds with his creative process in "Deadline," his fear and depression are vivid in "Life Worth Missing," and the title of "Famous" speaks for itself.
Toledo isn't the first artist to discover getting what you want isn't the same thing as getting what you were hoping for, and the cooler, more precise, and less cozy surfaces of Making a Door Less Open suit these songs well, the inorganic tone meshing with the alienation that permeates the album. Despite all that, the simple yet effective melodies that buoyed Car Seat Headrest's earlier work are still recognizable, and the sincere, foggy tone of Toledo's voice adds a humanity that makes his uncertainty cut even deeper. Making a Door Less Open does not sound like the work of a happy man, but he remains a remarkably talented one, and this music is tremendously powerful, a strong album about his own weaknesses. One hopes Will Toledo is more content when Car Seat Headrest next goes into the studio, but that he's also just as good and as honest as he is on Making a Door Less Open.