The story of Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy will be familiar to many fans of the band at this point. For the uninitiated:
2011: Will Toledo (19), under the name Car Seat Headrest, releases Twin Fantasy onto music-streaming website Bandcamp. It’s an hour-long lo-fi rock concept album about the disintegration of a long-distance teenage relationship.
2018: Car Seat Headrest is now a full band fronted by Toledo (25). They release a rewritten, rerecorded studio version of Twin Fantasy, the original iteration of which has since grown into something of an online cult classic.
Toledo, particularly since the success of 2016’s neurotic Teens of Denial, has gained a reputation in indie music spheres for his particular brand of guitar rock. A Car Seat Headrest song is typically muscular, sprawling, and rife with arena-sized hooks, effective vehicles for Toledo’s anxious vocal meanderings; his lyrics grapple with existential adolescent dread through the lens of everything from drug use to religion to mental illness to young love. All this and more is present on Twin Fantasy, but the new edition (subtitled Face to Face, as opposed to 2011’s Mirror to Mirror) transcends the original’s status as a document of teenage heartbreak to reflect more effectively and compellingly on the events that inspired the album in the first place.
It asserts itself as more than a series of angsty love songs as Toledo reflects to the urge to detach oneself from real life by lapsing into self-mythologising
The narrative arc of the album charts Toledo’s infatuation and relationship with another young man; “My boy / We don’t see each other much / It’ll take some time / But somewhere down the line / We won’t be alone” he repeats on the opening track with an air of plainspoken innocence, even as his delivery grows more and more impassioned. There’s not a lot to unpack lyrically until the expansive second track and album highlight ‘Beach Life-In-Death’. Here, the lines between fact and fiction begin to distort as Toledo contradicts himself, revising the narrative of the song as he sings it: “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends / I never came out to my friends”. It becomes increasingly apparent as the album progresses that the central romance is one fractured by a series of factors, not least the protagonist’s tendency to blur fantasy with reality. Twin Fantasy gradually asserts itself as more than a series of angsty love songs as Toledo reflects to the urge to detach oneself from real life by lapsing into self-mythologising; “You know that good lives make bad stories”, he belts out on ‘Sober to Death’. In part, it’s an album about the way people construct representations of other people and events, both in an internal sense – the protagonist is clearly projecting onto his boyfriend – and a metatextual sense; that is, the album itself is a medium through which the experience is remembered and manifested, a fact emphasised by occasional breaks into self-referential spoken word (“Is it the chorus yet? / No. It’s just a building of the verse”) and a plethora of intertextual nods, towards everything from the Bible to They Might Be Giants.
Twin Fantasy taps into the unhealthy ways we as people deal with feelings of alienation
This conceptual heft does nothing to distract from the quality of songwriting on display here; on the contrary, Toledo’s anguish is a suitable match for the noisy yet sharply-written tunes that comprise the album. His vocals, whether drawled, shrieked or digitally spliced, are certainly stronger than on Mirror to Mirror, and the updated arrangements grasp their full potential when they are afforded the kind of production that allows them to explode properly. The three-part ‘Beach Life-In-Death’ gathers ferocious momentum in its first few minutes alone, collapses into an anthemic middle section, then revs back up for a turbulent finale, propelled in no small part by the thundering precision of drummer Andrew Katz. ‘High to Death’ charts a disorienting nocturnal drug trip, drenched in reverb and embellished with glistening synths, while ‘Bodys’ combines a dance rock foundation worthy of LCD Soundsystem with power-pop melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early 2000s hit. The somewhat lengthy monologue that concludes ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’ is eclipsed by the whirring synth riff and pounding drums in the first half of the song, injecting it with more than a hint of Hot Fuss-era Killers. ‘Sober to Death’, with its infectious chorus, feels like an artefact from the 90s right up until the ending refrain, whereupon the instrumental unexpectedly begins alternating between a relaxed triple-time ballad and a sharp-edged 4/4 stomp. The final two tracks, meanwhile, end the album on a colossal one-two punch; the 16-minute ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ attempts to grapple with the inevitable breakdown of the relationship to monumental, heartbreaking effect, while the wistful, organ-led closing number finds both the narrator and present-day Toledo emerging into the light at the end of the tunnel. If there is a weak link in the tracklist, it is perhaps ‘Cute Thing’, which despite its gargantuan hook also boasts a relatively uninspired solo, and springy bursts of synthesizer which cannot help but feel slightly clumsy.
Twin Fantasy is, naturally, an album rife with dualities; human and inhuman, high and sober, mind and body, reality and fantasy. In exploring these poles, it taps into the unhealthy ways we as people deal with feelings of alienation, resonating with the deeply-felt desire to be somewhere or something else when reality feels like too much to bear. Yet it does so compassionately, pulsing all over with the kind of warmth that the opportunity to grow and reflect on one’s experiences provides; moreover, it’s loaded with some terrific indie rock songs. Devoted fans of the original work will surely continue to find value in the rawness of Mirror to Mirror, but newcomers and diehards alike will hopefully come to love Face to Face as well, an album that stands on its own as a newly-realised triumph.