Car Seat Headrest
Given the chance to do it all again, would you? What would you do differently? Upon signing with Matador after years of underground fame, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest was given that exact opportunity, as he was promised the chance to revisit his 2011 album Twin Fantasy with a full band and access to a state of the art studio and equipment. Arguably the most beloved album from his Bandcamp days, Twin Fantasy was always bursting at the seams with ideas and performances larger than Toledo’s low-budget lo-fi tools could ever afford him. It’s an album of dizzying highs and crushing lows, full of triumphant moments that seem built for a grand, Phil Spector wall of sound that Toledo previously had no access to.
Of course, there’s something about the album’s rough-around-the-edges charm that’s lost in Toledo’s reimagining of his magnum opus. The tape hiss and pixelated vocals from the original version are now replaced with crystal clear instrumentals and intimate performances from Toledo and his band. It’s at once closer and more removed, lending gravitas to quiet moments like the opening of “My Boy” or the stream-of-consciousness rant of “Nervous Young Inhumans” while aggrandizing the cathartic yelps of “Beach Life-in-Death” and “Cute Thing.”
So much of the appeal of Twin Fantasy — both in the original and this remastered version — is its rawness, as Toledo’s painfully teenaged lyrics and boyish vocals feel custom made to be etched into high school desks or chosen as possibly regrettable tattoos. Remaking the album in the vein of Toledo’s breakthrough hit Teens of Denial scrubs away much of the original’s grit, favouring a clean sound and a more pop-inflected spin on songs like “Nervous Young Inhumans” and “Bodys.” It’s a double edged sword: each song feels fresh and reinvigorated, but the album as a result feels less personal, something that doesn’t feel like it belongs to you and only you.
Of course, Toledo would probably balk at those who criticise Twin Fantasy (and Toledo himself) as moving away from its roots. This is an artist and songwriter at the top of his game, and the changes he makes to the album — removing the use of the misnomer “galvanistic,” dialling back the Biblical references of “Famous Prophets” — feel natural and often like improvements rather than omissions. The sonic overhauls also tend to improve the songs. The 13 minute opus “Beach Life-in-Death” is a tour de force that feels more powerful and emotionally charged than ever, as Toledo’s lyrics (“I don’t want to go in-saaaaaaaane”) are boosted by passionate performances from drummer Andrew Katz, bassist Seth Dalby, and guitarist Ethan Ives. “Famous Prophets (Stars),” which balloons from 10 to 16 minutes in this version, includes a jam session that relies heavily on the chemistry between Toledo and his bandmates, a virtue of Car Seat Headrest’s expansion that was lost on the deeply individual recordings from the album’s original version.
Like many Car Seat Headrest fans, I came to Twin Fantasy after listening to and falling in love with Teens of Denial. Maybe that makes it harder for me to empathise with those who’ve been listening to Toledo’s work from the very beginning. What I do recognise is that the new version is neither a straightforward improvement nor a pointless rehash of Toledo’s original masterpiece — it should be taken as an entirely separate work by an artist at a completely different stage in his life. Wizened and more experienced, Toledo is making the kind of music he probably dreamed of making during his early period, and one can see how Twin Fantasy was never a “finished work,” as Toledo wrote in the press release for this new version. Still, this new album does not eclipse the original, and the latter’s lo-fi charm remains unhindered by the fresh new versions found on the 2018 edition.
Whether recorded in 2011 or 2018, Twin Fantasy is Toledo’s strongest work as a songwriter and a performer. Its exploration of themes such as love, queerness, self-doubt, trauma, religion, and growing up are universal and profound. The 60s girl group stomp of “My Boy,” the desperation and sensuality of “Bodys,” the heartbreaking coda of “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)” — there are so many memorable moments, so many instances of self-aware humour and genuine pathos, all glued together by Toledo’s passionate vocals and expert songwriting, blending pop hooks and gnarly rock and roll that challenges but never obfuscates. This is an album to fall in love with, one that feels like a genuine discovery. Few people are making rock and roll as insightful and emotional as Car Seat Headrest, and this new version of Twin Fantasy only serves to solidify their place as indie rock’s golden boys.
Words by Max James Hill