The year was 2016. My indie rock awakening (courtesy of Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire) had just begun. At the recommendation of a friend, one of the first indie artists I stumbled upon was a small, obscure band called Car Seat Headrest. At the time, the band, led by singer-songwriter extraordinaire Will Toledo, wasn’t as big as it is now, but it would nonetheless become a big deal to me.
A few days into the second semester of my sophomore year, I attended a thespian conference. (Yes, I was a theatre kid.) During the four-hour bus ride from St. Louis to Kansas City, I decided to listen to an album my friend Sean often raved about: Car Seat Headrest's 2011 masterpiece Twin Fantasy. Toledo released the album on Bandcamp when he was 17 years old, and on it, he perfectly articulated feelings of love and loss to my 16-year-old self. I was transfixed by the album’s raw emotion. Even though Toledo’s vocals were distorted by a lo-fi filter, their meaning was clear to me.
Over the next few months, I had my first real encounters with rejection and heartbreak as crushes turned into painful disappointments. During this period, I revisited Twin Fantasy countless times. Every time I listened to the outro of "Nervous Young Inhumans," in which Toledo monologues about how he's turned his romantic interest into an overly idealized character in his mind, it felt like he was speaking from my point of view.
In “Sober to Death,” Toledo repeats the line, “Don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more,” over and over as if he's trying to convince himself it’s true. As I sang along, that line really did make me feel less alone. It was reassuring to know that someone, somewhere, at some point in time, felt the same way I did. I think that was the first time I truly connected with music on a personal level.
Later that year, Car Seat Headrest released its newest album. And it slapped. Teens of Denial became the soundtrack of my life for the rest of the year. It had the emotional weight that drew me to Twin Fantasy, and although the songwriting was more mature, it was bold, brash and loud. To me, this album represented the freedom that supposedly comes with age. When I got a car for my 17th birthday, it was the first thing I put on the aux. As I cruised down the highway with “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” blasting on the stereo, I felt like I could do anything.
It was around this time that I went to my first real concert. One Monday evening, I threw on a Teens of Denial t-shirt that was way too small and dragged a friend to a tiny venue in St. Louis to see – you guessed it – Car Seat Headrest. Before the show started, I saw a face in the crowd that made me do a double take. My first thought was that Will Toledo was a lot taller than I expected. My second thought was that I was about to meet my musical idol. I sheepishly walked closer, and after resisting my impulse to call him “Mr. Toledo,” I posed for a photo that perfectly captures that period of my life.
Pictures aside, the concert was fantastic. I had no idea how to dance or mosh, but as I sloppily imitated the crowd, I didn’t care how awkward I looked. The other people in the audience seemed to disappear until I was alone with the music and the band that created it. I’d spent so many nights connecting with Car Seat Headrest through my headphones, but that show brought the connection to life. Live music has given me some of my favorite memories, but no performance has touched me the way that first concert in St. Louis did.
As time went on, Car Seat Headrest became pretty popular. When the band released a re-recorded version of Twin Fantasy in 2018, I should have been overjoyed, and, to an extent, I was. An album that was near and dear to my heart had gotten a fresh coat of paint and it sounded excellent. But part of me was almost bitter that the music I used to consume so privately was now being shown to the world. It was like my own personal diary was leaked online. As the album was praised by the masses, I felt happy for Will. But for me, the music lost its intimacy. So for a couple years, Car Seat Headrest faded out of my musical rotation.
On May 1, just over a week ago, Car Seat Headrest released its newest album, Making a Door Less Open. I’d listened to most of the singles as they came out over the past few months, but I hadn’t given them much thought. When the full project finally dropped, however, I sat down with it and listened closely. Here I was, alone in my childhood bedroom, listening to a Car Seat Headrest album front-to-back – I felt like I was in high school again. Just like in high school, I lost myself in the music.
Instrumentally, Making a Door Less Open is largely driven by synths and electronic production. The Twin Fantasy remake hinted at this sound, but it is still a departure from the powerful guitar melodies on the band’s earlier albums. Despite this, Will’s distinctive vocals continue to shine through, and his songwriting is as strong as ever.
Toledo provides a familiar voice against an unfamiliar backdrop, and while his verses might not retain Twin Fantasy’s raw teenage emotions, as I read through them carefully they resonate with me all the same. The track “Martin” includes the line, “I will never forget the way you made me feel.” When I heard that lyric, I once again felt like he was singing from my point of view. While my music taste has changed a lot over the past few years, I will never forget the way Car Seat Headrest made me feel.
For me, Making a Door Less Open is like a reunion with an old friend. It feels reassuring to know that the artist that made me listen to music differently is still creating art, even if it's changed a lot since I first discovered his music. After all, I've changed a lot too. When I look closely at Car Seat Headrest's latest work, I can find pieces of the album that made me feel like I wasn’t alone when I was 16.
And when I look even closer, I can find pieces of myself, too.
This piece was partially inspired by a video essay by my friend Sean Kennedy, who introduced me to Car Seat Headrest in high school. You can watch it here.