Car Seat Headrest‘s Will Toledo first recorded “Twin Fantasy” on his laptop at age 19, coming off a series of extremely lo-fi Bandcamp releases that had gained him some amount of cult online following when he had just come of age.
Back then, the album represented a huge step forwards for the young singer-songwriter out of Virginia – listen to his first five Bandcamp releases as Car Seat Headrest and you won’t find anything that comes close to the musical and lyrical depths he reached in “Twin Fantasy”, a high-concept, genre-spanning album that boasts a mirrored structure, recurrent fourth wall breaks and an impressive intertextual network that you just don’t see in most popular music – let alone in records made by teenagers whose only recording equipment is a computer and its pre-installed software.
For an album that among many other things warns the listener about the dangers inherent in aligning too closely with an artist you admire, it didn’t take long for “Twin Fantasy” to become object of a dedicated online cult. And it did so for very good reasons. I’m not speaking exclusively for myself when I say that “Twin Fantasy” isn’t only the kind of record people get into after a tough break-up, or while being in the midst of a complicated long-distance relationship; it’s a formative album, one that opens windows to new ways of thinking about music, about art and about love. It’s no wonder that most people that hold “Twin Fantasy” in such high esteem became obsessed with it during their late teens/early twenties – and let us not forget how old Toledo was when he wrote it. But it’s not like “Twin Fantasy” is one of many angst-ridden albums that fans look back on fondly in a vain attempt to re-capture their youth. It’s much more than that – a complex work of art with an astonishing amount of interpretative elements, brimming with musical and lyrical motifs that transcend the extremely personal backstory from which it was born. “Twin Fantasy” has stood the test of time; it still holds up as a great lo-fi album more than six years after its release. So why record it again?
Despite all its technical sloppiness, “Twin Fantasy” was a perfect album for many people. But it wasn’t for everyone. I can’t even remember the amount of times I’ve been told that even though the songs are fine, the whole thing sounds like absolute shit. To this day, I still think the lo-fi-ness (is this a word? Let’s pretend that it is a word) of the original recording is a huge part of its appeal, as Will Toledo used the limitations of his pretty much non-existent recording equipment to create a warm, endearingly off-kilter aesthetic whose bond with the lyrical themes of the album worked like a charm. After spending a few weeks with this re-recorded version titled “Face to Face”, I’ve come to realize that there was an entire side of “Twin Fantasy” that had been hidden from us, one that can be expansive and ambitious while retaining the original appeal of the 2011 version.
Toledo has gone to state that he saw the original “Twin Fantasy” – now re-named as “Mirror to Mirror”- as an incomplete project. He might have been right, but it turns out that what the album needed wasn’t just a slight re-tweaking in the song-writing and a six-figure recording budget. What it truly needed was its own twin, a different glance to be thrown at Toledo’s fantasy. Mature enough to offer a second opinion on a significant part of his life, Toledo is not the same person he was in 2011, and he certainly isn’t the same musician. A re-recorded version of an album he wrote seven years ago was always going to be very different from the original product. It also helps that he’s not completely on his own this time round – Toledo’s band members have a quite distinctive and immediately recognizable playing style: Ethan Ives’s guitar licks bring in a rock and roll tone that was certainly absent from the original; Seth Dalby’s Colin Greenwood-like bass lines provide a much-needed sense of professional restraint, and Andrew Katz might be the best current indie rock drummer this side of Bryan Devendorf.
Toledo has changed as a singer, as a producer and as a lyricist. He feels more comfortable having someone else interpolate fragments from the New Testament into his songs than quoting a fatalistic passage from The Book of Kings himself. He’d rather have Frank Ocean’s voice than Dan Bejar’s. He has found out that “galvanistic” is not a real word. For the most part, his songs refuse to be pinned down to a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, while his lyrics stand in an interesting middle ground between High Modernist levels of referencing an unlikely wide range of different texts and the confessional spirit that permeates some of the most touching lines of the album.
Car Seat Headrest‘s “Twin Fantasy” is simply one of the best albums ever made nothing more, nothing less
“Face to Face” is not a more palatable version of the album that can reach a wider audience; it is a complete reimagining of Toledo’s original fantasy. Sure, it’s the same ten songs than in the original version, and a couple of them have been left almost untouched: the noisy tone-setter opening track “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)” has been given just a few minor tweaks, while “Stop Smoking (We Love You)”, the brief Pollard-esque acoustic plead that serves as a sedative after the heart-wrenching frenzy of “Beach Life-in-Death”, is simply a better-sounding version of its 2011 counterpart. Some other tracks have been largely re-written; others, even if staying true to the original in terms of their structure and lyrics, have been given an entirely new life: “Beach Life-in-Death” remains the same three-headed monster that functions as the centrepiece of the album’s first side, but its last act has been greatly revamped, effectively becoming the song’s emotional apex: “Oh please, let me join your cult / I’ll paint my face in your colours”, Will Toledo desperately begs over an impressive wall of distorted guitars.
A handful of songs have been altered almost beyond recognition, “High to Death” being the prime example of Toledo’s growth as a musician. Whereas the “Mirror to Mirror” version was a noisy, almost shoegaze-y affair that culminated in an instrumental climax, the “Face to Face” recording finds Toledo choosing not to hide behind a distorted vocal filter, as his production takes a page or two off Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” to assemble a plaintive slow-burner whose reluctance to build into an epic ending stands in sharp contrast to the euphoric one-two punch of “Bodys” and “Cute Thing”. In fact, it is the album’s upbeat middle section that has been most substantially altered – “Nervous Young Inhumans” and “Bodys” are no longer the slightly awkward songs to which you’d dance alone in your bedroom after putting the blinds down so no one can see you, having in turn become confident, indie disco-ready bangers.
That the album’s middle section trips down a sunnier path than expected turns out to add even more weight to the emotional resonance of the completely devastating last three songs – “High to Death” sees Toledo in a drunken haze, “considering death” and being trapped by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s yellow wallpaper, while the album’s title track, kept under a lo-fi spell similar to that of the “Mirror to Mirror” version, remains one of the saddest pieces of music written in the present decade. But the point on which all things converge is the 16-minute long “Famous Prophets (Stars)”, inarguably Car Seat Headrest’s most accomplished studio production to date. Led by a heavy bassline that seems to carry all the emotional baggage of the eight previous tracks, it starts off as a relatively standard post-punkish song and ends up being a lengthy, cathartic jam that incorporates a riff from a song off one of Toledo’s most obscure albums, ultimately bringing closure to the painstar narrative that he opened in the spoken-word outro to “Nervous Young Inhumans.”
I guess I could go on for ages rambling on about the constant repetition of the album’s lyrical and musical motifs, about how Side B is supposed to mirror Side A, about how Car Seat Headrest’s interpolation of his own older material into some of these tracks is key to understand the new narrative behind the songs, about what it means for an album titled “Twin Fantasy” to be bookended by songs with reverse titles which incorporate the same drumbeat partially lifted off The Ronettes. But I don’t think any of that is necessary, or even pertinent, at this point. The two most telling things I can put forward about how I feel about this album is that I couldn’t bring myself to follow the well-established rule of sticking to the third person while writing a review, and that the only way I can possibly wrap this thing up is by saying that the last time any piece of music resonated so powerfully with me was when I came across some amateur Bandcamp album called “Twin Fantasy”.