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Album Reviews: Car Seat Headrest -- Twin Fantasy

Album Reviews
Martin Douglas

During his years as an uber-prolific product of the Bandcamp release method, the output of Car Seat Headrest sounded like how Guided by Voices would exist if Robert Pollard were weaned on early-period Saddle Creek rather than the Who and 24-packs of Budweiser. There is a daring quality to frontman Will Toledo’s songwriting. It’s unreliant on formula while still unmistakably drawing within the boundaries of of guitar-pop music, traditionally structured rock tunes sitting alongside -- or occasionally jammed into -- 16-minute odysseys. Portentous song titles (i.e. Teens of Denial's “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”) ferry Big Ideas crouched within songs about getting high and feeling self-conscious.

Twin Fantasy, the Seattle band’s third full-length for Matador Records, is the self-described completion of Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest album of the same name, self-recorded and released in 2011, a lifetime ago when it comes to artistic and personal growth. Essentially, his approach is like rewriting the diary pages from his nineteen-year-old self and fashioning them into memoirs.

Toledo is no stranger to rearranging his own work. His 2015 Matador debut, Teens of Style, was a compilation of retooled songs his vast catalog of Bandcamp-era material. Because of this tendency to compulsively revise his own work, resisting the urge to compare and contrast both versions of Twin Fantasy is Sisyphean at best.

At times, the 2011 version of the album lives as what you would expect from the effort of a less seasoned musician; rawer and more urgent, clearly the document of fresher emotional wounds. To wit, the updated version doesn’t carry the burden of an artist tracing over old scar tissue with their fingers. Instead, it's more voluminous, more refined, more musically ambitious. 

When the heavy temptation to listen to each version of the record back-to-back comes home to roost, little amendments of songcraft pop up all over. On the original version of “Cute Thing,” Toledo sings of becoming a rock god and wishes for Dan Bejar’s voice; it’s changed on the 2018 version to Frank Ocean. The tradeoff augments a song that is at equal turns sexual advance and music nerd message board aside. “I can make you a man” makes way for, “He died in an explosion/Of mixed media and poorly-written reviews.”

Penultimate track “Famous Prophets (Minds)” blasted through late 2011 as a blown-out diatribe in the midst of an anxiety-inducing breakup, questioning why God brings people into our lives before quoting Bible scripture (1 Kings 19:11, in case you were wondering) at the song’s close. In present day it becomes a skyward, arena-rock-ready anthem about trying to avoid being a nervous wreck and failing. The image of bruised shins “from kicking the back seat in” are on both versions of the song.

Naturally, the studio-recorded version of Twin Fantasy is a much more serviceable vehicle for Toledo’s vocals -- his pitch and timbre distinctly reminiscent of a lovesick Julian Casablancas -- in the very front of the mix. Toledo’s voice is occasionally (and rightfully) the focal instrument in Car Seat Headrest; wounded, distraught, introspective, a raspy lament, a panicked howl from across the room.

The “Bodys” on Version 1 has a backing drumbeat spliced together in an almost-lopsided loop while the 2018 iteration is far smoother and slightly more danceable. “Everybody’s swinging their hips,” Toledo sings part way through, “Everybody’s giving the waitress tips.” The nervous tension of the song escalates both lyrically and musically, a crescendo of existentialism and worry over intimacy before the song hits its climax (no pun intended) and dancing once again distracts Toledo from his apprehension.

A good portion of the album is, creatively, altogether unaffected (aside from the studio quality), and Toledo’s depth as a songwriter at nineteen holds up well. “Beach Life-in-Death” reads how a Homeric epic poem would stand on the page if the ancient Greeks had an emo scene. It’s a text of love gained and lost written with a finely-tipped calligraphy pen of insecurity and ennui: Train stations, roads with fluctuating speed limits, coming out to friends in a Skype session but “lol not really,” Disney movies distorting the psychology of kids and replacing the jolt of romance with emotional complexes, bringing a boy home to mom and introducing him as “my brother.”

“Sober to Death” is a social agreement between two damaged people which turns into a contract draft (“You can text me/When punching your mattress gets old”) and back (“We were wrecks before we crashed into each other”). The autumnal jangle of “High to Death” chronicles the follies of stumbling around and seeing things while in the throes of an unnamed substance, featuring the standard drug-assisted epiphany: “And I said hell is the sun/Burning forever in the center of things.”

The fastidious, almost microscopic attention to detail on Twin Fantasy is pretty astounding. There are shifting movements, spoken-word outros, winks to the fourth wall of songwriting, an acoustic song-in-miniature worried about someone with a cigarette habit. By the time the organs of album closer “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys),” a gorgeous ballad that feels like the acceptance stage of grief, make way for Toledo reckoning with this relationship -- “The contract is up, the names have been changed” -- the exhaustive, at times exhausting emotional labor of the album is resolved, as much as heartbreak can be.

In allowing yourself to be swept up in the current of Twin Fantasy, it’s easy to see how it was a project Will Toledo wanted to see through to its final form. The concept of love -- specific and grand, powerful and utterly mundane -- is rendered as a massive weight here, and by the end it is lifted off the shoulders of everyone, the author most of all. The greatest thing about completing a completing a deeply personal masterwork is the feeling of being able to finally move on with your life.

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