Like many people, I only became aware of Car Seat Headrest following the acclaim for their 2016 album Teens of Denial, which was undoubtedly one of the year’s best and one of the wittiest, most painful expressions of millennial angst I’ve heard, tied to the liberating power of rock music. All that talk about the death of rock seemed to vanish when Will Toledo’s band was invading your eardrums with their tuneful, epic displays of virtuoso songwriting. And the guitars killed.
But Will Toledo had been making lo-fi recordings under the Car Seat Headrest moniker for over half a decade prior to Teens of Denial. Largely on his own, in the back of a car (hence the band’s name), or in his bedroom, Toledo recorded a dozen LPs and EPs, released them on Bandcamp, and slowly accumulated his fan base. 2015’s Teens of Style was a rerecorded compilation of some of his older songs. It was also precedent for Twin Fantasy, a completely rerecorded version of his 2011 album of the same name, with a full band in tow and minor structural and lyrical alterations.
The first thing you notice is that it mostly sounds great. Of course it does; recorded in a studio for Matador Records, it was always going to sound better than the original, which was recorded by Toledo on a cheap laptop. The guitars crunch satisfyingly, you can hear Seth Dalby’s bass doing so much work to keep everything grounded, you can relish Andrew Katz’s drums for doing so much work to lift everything off again. All the parts are distinct and clear, with the noticeable exception of Toledo’s vocals. His tendency to mumble didn’t cause too many problems on Teens of Denial, which wrought sheer passion out of his voice. But the lengthier numbers here sometimes feel even longer than they are (13 minutes! 16 minutes!) because of the strain to hear his words beneath the din.
The second thing you notice is the often portentous structures of the songs. It betrays its roots in the 19-year-old Toledo’s mind. He tends to overcompensate for lack of melody with frequent changes in tone and tempo, tricks that fail to cover for a lack of truly inspired ideas. No chorus soars quite like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” on Teens of Denial, no amount of multi-tracking can match the fevered excitement of, say, “Fill in the Blank” or “Unforgiving Girl”. The multi-part suites on Twin Fantasy sometimes contain spoken word segments or sampled sound collages that pad out the time even further and for not quite compelling enough reasons. There is an overall feeling that Toledo wants to make a Big Statement but didn’t yet possess the songwriting acumen to pass it off in 2011. There’s a whole lot of overreaching going on.
So why has he returned to rerecord the album in 2018? I’m sure he could write better songs now if he tried. Only “Bodys” and “Cute Thing” rank up there with his greatest, rawest, and most articulate works.
Clearly it means a lot to him. Whilst the boundary between real and fictional is deliberately blurred, Twin Fantasy is at least partly based on Toledo’s love affair with another man whilst he was a young teenager. Like a musical Call Me By Your Name, Toledo recreates the intensity of first love, and particularly a homosexual first love, vividly through the frequent brilliance of his lyrics. Some choice lines: “Lovely, lovely/In your jeans, frenzy/Another movie that I didn’t watch with you”; “Healthy minds make sexy bodies/Let us touch so much of ourselves together”; “They just want to be one/Walk off into the sun/They’re not kissing/They’re not fucking/They’re just having fun”.
We are left in little doubt that this romance has ended though, as all things must (“Do you realise our bodies could fall apart any second?”). And Toledo finds new ways to express the heartbreak he feels, which is of course pop music’s greatest running theme: “Keep smoking, I still love you/But I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die”; “These teenage hands will never touch yours again/But I remember you/You had a body”.
In the end, lyrics is all Toledo has left, a fantasy image of himself and his lover walking off into a perfect sunset that can never exist in real life, but can exist in his music: “Off into the distance/Those two brothers/Those two lovers/And their smooth-cocked adventures”. It’s a poignant ending, and the power of nostalgia for a romance that could never be suggests why Toledo was keen to return to this project.
Twin Fantasy is a bloated and often unsatisfactory listen that pales in comparison to Teens of Denial, and meanders too often away from the moving romanticism at its core. Yet for its occasional rushes of grand rock & roll momentum, and Toledo’s ever-amusingly wry voice, it deserves to be visited at least once. Just not again and again. It doesn’t inspire the same kind of obsession Toledo clearly has for his first love.