by Patrick Preziosi
Bitching about fame is commonplace in popular music, and bitching about a musician’s bitching is just as recurrent a talking point as well. This feedback loop impedes critical objectivity, so inextricable are personal lives from artistic personas, all the more exacerbated by superstar status. The line between self-awareness and obliviousness can be handily obliterated at any given moment, and the gauntlet is thrown to the listener: do the emotional stakes outweigh perhaps unwelcome contextual material? We as listeners strive to get closer, and in turn musicians bristle and try to un-knot their responsibilities and personal inclinations on record. The game has been played for a good amount of time now, and will undoubtedly continue.
The most fascinating records born from this conundrum come packaged with a bracing tension of both appeasing the listenership and striking out beyond expectation. The internet has brought us closer than ever to our artists, and subsequently, they can’t operate within the kind of vacuum that might actually be preferable. It’s also a shared trait that’s begun to bridge more disparate contemporary artists. Will Toledo, frontman and previously sole-member of the intensely personal, diaristic and even insular indie rock outfit Car Seat Headrest has professed an affinity for our premiere paranoid-egoist, Kanye West; it’d be unsurprising if he had similar feelings for Drake as well.
Although Drake’s rapid ascent was long before Car Seat Headrest’s “Beach Life-In-Death” began to make the rounds, both he and Toledo have maintained a confessional mode of songwriting that’s found as many pouring over the lyrics as they do for how they also keep listeners at arm’s length. For Drake, it’s the fame that keeps him walled-off, occasionally calcifying into a rather noxious strand of general mistrust. And for Toledo, it’s his thick as a brick verbiage, which stumbles onto inscrutable hyper-specifics as much as it does universal admissions of heartbreak, depression, etc. There’s an innate expectation of personability that the music of Drake and Car Seat Headrest elicits, but both artists are canny enough––on record and off––to also circumvent such.
A subtle taste for releasing music on their own respective terms has been present in both artists since the jump too. As uneventful as it is to claim an album a mixtape, or a mixtape a playlist, Drake has built an entire persona out of being the primary decision maker in how formally received a collection of songs should be, if they are just a hodgepodge of odds and ends, or an immaculately packaged tracklist of lowkey raps that don’t rise above the level of the mixtape, even if you’re charged $11.99 for it on iTunes. And Toledo’s early career exists as probably Bandcamp’s truest success story, album after album of lo-fi guitar music––equally indebted to the Beach Boys as it is Pavement––released for free, amassing enough fans to catch the ear of venerated independent label Matador.
This carries over to both artists’ new releases. Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes––regardless of its commercial sheen––is apparently just a demo collection ahead of a yet-to-be-detailed studio album, dropping this summer. Car Seat Headrest’s Making a Door Less Open reshuffles and reimagines different versions of songs across the basic framework of its tracklisting: the version of “Hymn” on the vinyl release is different than the “remix” on CD and digital, while the song “Deadlines” appears in “Hostile” and “Thoughtful” iterations… whatever that means. These gestures from Toledo and Drake feel largely pointless, yet simultaneously read as last-ditch efforts to maintain some authorial distance over audiences who are quick to dismantle both image and output. There’s a certain level of expectation of theme and lyrical content from song to song for both artists, but as they’ve both tinkered with altered forms of release, you could argue there’s no front-to-back perfect project delivered under the banner of being a studio recorded, label released, capital-A album.
If that’s to imply a certain critic-proofness surrounding these releases, that’s partially the point. Dark Lane and Making a Door sit pretty near the bottom of both artists’ respective discographies, but they provide a more formidable listening experience in unknotting their closed-off songwriting than records like Teens of Denial or Scorpion. Superstardom has taken its toll on both men, and they chip away at that image while also perpetuating it, just as we expect our popstars to do. But both seem now to be aiming to achieve such through the actual presentation of their music, instead of the content of the songs themselves.
Toledo may be the scrappy indie-rocker, but his ascent has come to shoulder a large portion of the intermittent popularity of guitar music. I doubt he thought he’d be partly responsible for a significant amount of destroyed vinyl and CDs after Rick Ocaseck pulled the rights to an interpolation of “Just What I Needed” the week before Teens of Denial’s release – when he was still recording vocals in the back of his parents’ car in the early 2010s. Toledo, who has frequently copped to writer’s block and other creative speedbumps, is now expected to maintain a steady flow of material, lest he fall out of pace with his younger self. That problem was slightly dodged when he rerecorded Twin Fantasy with increased fidelity in 2018, but now with Making a Door Less Open, that blockage has reached its obvious nadir. In press materials, Toledo wears a light-up gasmask, as if to further remove himself from the otherwise more collaborative (his bandmates of the last few years have been increasingly welcomed into the fold) new record.
And when you listen to “Hollywood”––a typical spleen venter concerning accrued fame that amounts to little more than a ‘fuck off’ from Toledo––that distance feels intentional. Drummer Andrew Katz scream-raps, namedropping Marilyns Manson and Monroe, and Toledo lazily admits “Hollywood makes me wanna puke,” over a cock-rock parody akin to late-era Weezer at their most confused. However, when Toledo’s now fitful presence isn’t encroached upon by such histrionics, he foresees a new Car Seat Headrest of greater density and patience. “Weightlifters” rides a synth drone and keyboard plinks for nearly three minutes before the beat drops into a dime store LCD Soundsystem impersonation; but the sudden emergence of Toledo’s voice from as-of-yet unfamiliar textures is thrilling. Same goes for “Can’t Cool Me Down”, which continues the breakbeats and arpeggiating synths to a more communal effect––it’d play great on a dancefloor, sans Toledo’s breaking voice––with the building chant of “I crawl animal to you.”
These opposing poles of quality in experimentation are more welcome to what now feels like catering, as the handful of “conventional” tracks play like a CSH knockoff. The shaggy “Martin” wears some welcome (Sandy) Alex G influence on its sleeve and “Deadlines (Hostile)”’s heavy guitars are like comfort food following a mostly otherwise electronic palette, but both amount to little more than mid-album filler. Making a Door does swing with another two admirable workouts near the end––“Life Worth Missing” and “There Must Be More Than Blood”––which recall the best of Toledo’s multi-part song epics, but with a much more scaled back vocabulary. Car Seat Headrest has spent its entire career being defined by a propensity for oversharing, and there is perverse pleasure in witnessing the inverting of the formula, regardless of the fact that the results are hardly an unimpeachable success.
On Dark Lane Demo Tapes, Drake isn’t as much concerned with flipping scripts. But as has become his wont on projects in which he’s the most significant binding force (that’d exclude 2017’s More Life “playlist”, in which he more kindly imagines himself as a kind of global music ambassador), he’s similarly taken with the idea of peeling back certain sonic and lyrical layers, forever chasing an ideal of the chilly, heavily R&B-inflected hip-hop he himself helped pioneer. He’s spent the larger part of his last two studio albums––2016’s VIEWS and 2018’s Scorpion––sapping the melancholic bombast of 2011’s Take Care and 2013’s Nothing Was the Same. More lowkey projects have typically brought shit-talk and a more varied production toolkit to the fore, but now Dark Lane Demo Tapes plays like a Drake studio album in comparative miniature (many of the rapper’s albums gleefully continue past the one-hour mark).
Thusly, Scorpion outtake “Deep Pockets” is another one of those state-of-the-Drake-union openers, a stage-setter with both muted and blown-out production by Plain Pat and OVO mainstay 40, giving Drake the necessary space to affirm his own tragic significance amidst his own come up. It’s standard Aubrey Graham, making the top sound like the loneliest place imaginable: “Pyramid schemes like the Egyptians / Back when hotlines were still flippin’ / Now I’m seeing money off of hotlines blingin’ but it feels different.”
But as has plagued many a recent Drake project, Dark Lane’s virtues are had somewhat at the rapper’s expense. He’s always been an agreeable binding force; you could do a lot worse than his honeyed voice remaining a constant element of the music. However, he’s never been immune to being shown up, or worse, simply being boring. He’ll shine on the lowkey “Time Flies”, which plays like a more nuanced counterpart to the megahit “In My Feelings” (“I’m outside in an AMG / Right outside, TT” is a much more perfect lyric for ghostriding the whip), and manages to keep pace with firebrands Sosa Geek and Fivio Foreign on “Demons”. But Dark Lane’s brevity still feels baggy, Drake’s pet themes of conniving women and being on the outside looking in only growing more squeamishly venomous as time passes. More damning is “Toosie Slide”, which, after coining an absolute nonevent of a dance (“right foot up, left foot slide, left foot up, right foot slide”), he then asserts “I can dance like Michael Jackson.” And of course, Drake drowns in the company of Pi’erre Bourne and Playboi Carti.
Like Toledo, however, Drake seems more than content to drop an album with a surprising level of malleability. Both projects circle past writer’s block and general creative lack to settle on something that at least feels intentionally unfinished. It’s a committed move of distancing, of not pandering but also not entirely subverting. With such intense artist-listener relationships that can amount to extremes of obsession, conscious and subtle inching away becomes a necessity. If the listening public really is intent on weighing a musician’s personal life against their output, then such lateral moves as these should also be accepted as par for the course; one can’t remain a vicarious shoulder to cry on forever. Or, as Toledo puts it on “There Must Be More Than Blood”, “there must be more than tears / when they pull back the curtain / this much I am certain.”