Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy: “Complex and fascinating”
There are three interesting stories to Twin Fantasy. The first is the album’s creation itself. Will Toledo first released Twin Fantasy under the name Car Seat Headrest in 2011, for free on bandcamp. He was 19, and had written and recorded the entire work himself, using his laptop’s built-in microphone and his mum’s car for a vocal booth. The album amassed a cult following on sites like reddit and 4chan, and in 2015 Toledo signed to Matador, who insisted that Toledo re-record the album. Toledo, feeling that he’d never done his imagination of the album justice the first time round, agreed, and after culling tracks from his extensive catalogue for 2015’s Teens of Style, and 2016’s stand-out Teens of Denial, he set to work on this unprecedented project with a full band, budget, and proper studio.
This was risky – the album was already adored, and the extremely lo-fi quality of the record was in many ways an important part of its fabric, the medium also being a part of the art. The way in which Toledo’s genius, tender lyrics and arrangements emerged from the damaged milieu of clipping guitars and hissing feedback mirrored his subject matter of trying to conjure up an all-conquering love from the mess of his life. The sound of someone’s ambitions and hopes fighting against their imperfections and limitations was heard in the production as much as the lyrics.
And thus we’re onto the second interesting story, that of the album’s subject. For this a concept album of sorts, dealing with a formative relationship that Toledo was in at the time of the original recording. So important and intense was the relationship that Toledo actually recorded three albums about it, seemingly as almost therapeutic attempts to process the emotions and happenings that were too monumental and confusing to fully appreciate at the time. It is a beautifully precious relationship – one between two outsiders who find in each other a sanctuary of acceptance, and an opportunity for the intimacy they crave. Yet it is threatened. The problems that they seek shelter from in each other – drugs, mental illness, social awkwardness, sexual identity struggles, a crushing fear of loneliness – simultaneously imperil the relationship. “We were wrecks before we crashed into each other” Toledo sings on ‘Sober to Death’. The relationship is punctuated by separation and distance – many references to Toledo’s boyfriend are of his absence. There are elements of dissatisfaction, with no overt mentions of romance, other than Toledo opening ‘Cute Thing’ with “I got so fucking romantic – I apologise”.
Yet there are gleeful moments. We hear of Toledo’s cheek-burning infatuation – “My ears perked up when your ears perked up/You were looking around/And I hoped it was for me”. And when he sings the line “When we dance” in the chorus of ‘Bodys’, it prompts the most indulgently pop-rock four bars of the whole album. We explore the relationship from numerous perspectives and points in time, looking at all the desperate, embarrassing, joyous details. For Toledo, it is an infatuation, an obsession, and a salvation from loneliness – but maybe it isn’t really love. By the end of the album, it has collapsed. Yet, his approach to this is stoic, plaintive. And strangely, Toledo’s closing remark is “When I come back, you’ll still be here”.
This makes sense when you consider the third story of this album – Toledo’s treatment of fantasy. Of course, the idea of fantasy lies in the title, but it is only properly discussed in the final track ‘Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)’ when he sings “it is just a song/It’s a version of you and me that can exist outside of everything else”. In one sense, Toledo is expressing that much of what he perceives of his boyfriend is a fantasy, a product of his own imagination, to fill in the gaps, to guide interpretation. On the album’s original version, this was much more explicit, with the closing monologue of ‘Nervous Young Humans’ finding Toledo telling his boyfriend that “I, like, created you as a character, pretending that I know a lot more about you than I actually do”. That monologue has disappeared, but the idea lives on: the little we know about his relationship and his boyfriend is mostly Toledo’s fantasy. Some fans contend that Toledo’s boyfriend is purely fantasy, but I think he’s being more subtle than this, with elements of reality merged with elements of desire.
So what is real and what is fake? There’s never an explanation, but that’s the point. If you are deeply in love there is a distance and uncertainty imposed, necessarily, by fantasy – human beings are too complex to be understood and perceived without the interference of our own personalities infecting our interpretation of theirs. So despite the relationship ending, that part of his boyfriend that was purely a character, and a fantasy, endures. Indeed, if there’s any overarching message to the album, it’s that the imprint of love endures long after it is extinguished, and the fact that he revisited these emotions and found them to be just as intense seven years down the line is as much testament to that as any of the lyrics.
There’s also another level of fantasy, for Toledo is aware that our interpretation of his writings about the relationship will equally be infected by our own hopes and expectations. “If it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen here” – by singing about the relationship Toledo creates a world in our heads where things can be different, where the distinctions between reality and fantasy don’t matter. In this world, if nowhere else, the often impossible desires he has, like to love “a fugitive from the laws of nature”, can be realised. Toledo goes meta a lot actually, and I think the most telling example is the inclusion of an answer phone message from the artist Hojin Jung at the end of ‘High to Death’, where she describes painting a series of pictures about ‘The Lady’, during a period of intensity and illness in her youth. She was convinced the lady loved her, and that she loved her too. It’s hard not to read this as an allegory for Toledo’s experience of writing about, then revisiting, his own relationship, and almost wilfully losing track of what is real and what is fake. But Toledo also gives the impression that the confusion has abated for him now – to end ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ he samples a reading of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, including the line “for now we only see a reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face”*. That “now” is seven years ago for Toledo, and “then” is the present day – now he has found a way to see things clearly. So what is it that he knows now that he didn’t then? A clue comes from his modification of the line “and now these three remain: faith, hope, and love” to “and now these two remain”. Not only is it badass blasphemy to alter Biblical quotes to valorise your gay lover, it shows that Toledo feels that the enduring memory and impact of the relationship compensates for the faith, hope, and love he felt that was lost. The true value of the relationship was in how it changed him.
This is a deep, lyrical album about romantic obsession, that invites obsession itself. It’s full of Easter eggs, from songs that reference each other or other Car Seat Headrest songs, to references from literature and other bands’ songs (The Flaming Lips, Frank Ocean, John Lennon, They Might Be Giants, Led Zeppelin, and Leonard Cohen are all happily interpolated). And though the lyrics are rich, the music delivers too. Mostly this is wiry, agitated and ambitious rock, like The Strokes trying to be The Who. ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’, ‘Bodys’, and ‘Cute Thing’ are all glam-spangled alt-rock hits, and ‘Sober to Death’ channels the rusted melancholy of Southern Gothic. ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ and ‘Beach Life-In-Death’ are epics (clocking up 30 minutes between them) with careful builds, fades, and rebuilds. The music’s main purpose is to provide a setting for Toledo’s lyrics, and it achieves this excellently.
Despite the production being more polished, it hasn’t erased the charm of the original record. Matador call it a ‘reimagining’, but really it is more of a restoration of the original, with the moments of genius that were always visible now painted in more spectacular colours, and the layers of grime that obscured others being washed away. ‘Cute Thing’ particularly benefits from the re-recording, with the guitars now crunching furiously rather than bottoming out. The minor changes to the lyrics are all enhancements, and the substantial changes to samples and speeches offer greater profundity. Plus, there have been no attempts to commercialise the record – in fact, nearly all the songs have got longer.
This endlessly-interpretable and mysterious record defies convention, and is surely the most honest and lyrically-engaging rock record of the decade. And by weaving the very story of revisiting the original album and the events it concerns into the fabric of the record, Toledo has changed it for the better, creating a complex and fascinating piece of art that channels all the confusion and intensity of teenage emotion whilst simultaneously examining the nature of love – what it can and can’t save us from, what it can and can’t endure, how it changes us, how it stays with us long after it has gone.
*This quote is also where the subtitles of the original and new album come from. The 2011 version is referred to by fans as ‘Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror)’ and the 2018 version ‘Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)’.