Car Seat Headrest Twin Fantasy

[Matador; 2018]

Styles: indie rock, dance rock, indie pop
Others: Pavement, The Strokes, Brian Wilson’s “Smile”

The 2011 version of Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy begins with a variation of the iconic drum phrase from “Be My Baby.” Comprised of just a kick drum and two sticks clicking together, the album’s intro is a modest gesture. But gradually, “My Boy (Twin Fantasy),” the album’s inaugural song, grows more layered, culminating in a cacophony of messy, distorted guitars, clipping-prone drum tracks, and band autocrat Will Toledo’s quadruple-tracked vocals. That original Twin Fantasy (retroactively designated the “Mirror to Mirror” edition) showed that, like Phil Spector with his trademark Wall of Sound, Toledo was a maximalist. He favored elaborate multi-tracked arrangements and dynamic, lengthy song structures. Will Toledo, Car Seat’s sole creative force at the time, set out to prove himself as a bedroom pop auteur on the ur-Fantasy.

That album, uploaded during Toledo’s sophomore year at William and Mary, was Car Seat Headrest’s seventh Bandcamp-exclusive release. Having conceived of the Headrest project less than two years prior, Toledo found his artistic zenith in Fantasy amid a period of remarkable creative fecundity. It was a concept album, one that revolved around an imagined romance rife with “songs and hi-fives and weird sex” as well as the endlessly frustrating limitations of a theoretical relationship that could never be.

Moving away from the unadorned aesthetics of lo-fi heroes like Guided by Voices and Moldy Peaches, Car Seat Headrest issued a pronouncement via Twin Fantasy that low tech need not encumber artistic ambition nor inhibit creative vision. At 19 years old, Will Toledo was an undisputed wunderkind of indie rock’s SoundCloud generation. And it was obvious that sooner or later he’d grow bored with lo-fi.

So now brandishing a Bachelor’s Degree, a full backing band, and a record deal with Matador, Will is choosing to revisit his juvenilia and give it the high-fidelity revamp he didn’t have the wherewithal to achieve as a teenager. Thus, we have Twin Fantasy (Face to Face).

At times, the new Twin Fantasy feels like a simulacrum of its predecessor. Improving the album’s fidelity, the band sacrifice the ramshackle charm of certain songs; “Sober to Death,” with its now crystalline guitar lines, loses some of the original track’s frustrated verve that was imbued in its crackling, lo-fi sound. The updated “Bodys” similarly compromises the frenetic urgency of the 2011 version’s compressed drum beat, exchanging that driving force for a carefully programmed drum sound that one could expect on an LCD Soundsystem record. Danceable, sure, but incongruous with much of the rest of the album.

By other turns, however, Will’s maturation as a songwriter and producer breathe crucial new life into the album’s weaker links. Dialing back the tremoring reverb in his vocal track, Toledo injects some much-needed clarity into the formerly diaphanous “High to Death.” “I fell over, I fell onto the ground/ I wish I was sober, I can’t get up off the ground,” he sings, and this time around, his delivery truly communicates the penitence and self-loathing of a kid who’s been overzealously drinking and who knows he has the rest of the night and an impending hangover to reckon with.

The original “High to Death” featured an interpolation of Pink Floyd’s “Jugband Blues” (“And the sea isn’t green…”), which was elided from Face to Face presumably for legal reasons. Likewise, “Beach Life-in-Death” included the line “A book of Aubrey Beardsley art corrupted me in youth,” which has since been supplanted by lyrics from the band’s cover of Frank Ocean’s “Ivy.” These abrogated lines, along with the references that transferred over to the new Fantasy (They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng,” Leonard Cohen’s, “Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys”), illustrate Will’s cultural omnivorousness. He’s yet another node in the vast tissue of indie songwriters who bury furtive literary, musical, and psychological references in their music and color their lyrics with a panoply of cultural touchstones sometimes obvious, but often esoteric.

As a lyricist, Toledo serves as a focalizer who is desperate to pronounce his contrition and malaise, yet at the same time needs to proffer an ostensibly unrelated reference point to dispel suspicions of lugubriousness. “I feel so empty trying to explain this/ His name is William Onyeabor, he’s from the 70s,” professes Will on “Not What I Needed” from 2016’s Teens of Denial. Rather than address his ennui and disaffection directly, Toledo makes a passing reference to his opaque feelings and then promptly redirects our attention to the Nigerian funk legend. Something similar happens on “Beach Life-in-Death:” “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends […] then I laughed and I changed the subject.”

The Toledo persona he has constructed for Car Seat Headrest primarily functions as a carapace and an idealized self. It’s the façade that can get away with lines like, “I got so fucking romantic, I apologize. Let me light your cigarette.” He works to excuse his own histrionics while at the same time acting as an agent of catharsis, with the confidence (or maybe maladjustment) to disseminate his grievances. As he explains on “Beast Monster Thing,” from the EP How to Leave Town, “I co-write my songs with myself/ He feels the feelings, I write the words.”

And those words can be tautological and redundant. On “Sober to Death,” he sings “We have breakdowns and sometimes we don’t have breakdowns.” On “Famous Prophets,” he avers, “I’m not gonna end up a nervous wreck like the people I know who are nervous wrecks.” But these lines aren’t just pointedly banal pronouncements that emphasize the circuitousness of a relationship or internal dialogue caught in a stalemate; they’re the musings of a person who understands the paradoxical necessity and futility of articulating himself.

Will’s lyrics now enjoy the undergirding of a backup band that he assembled upon moving to Seattle back in 2014. Lead guitarist Ethan Ives imbues into the album’s tracks a style of noodling that’s informed as much by late-60s acid rockers as it is by the casually virtuosic guitar heroes of 90s alternative rock. Andrew Katz’s drumming, with its dexterity on both a live kit and programmed pads, evinces a versatility imperative to the group’s protean sound. And Seth Dalby, as humble a bassist as there ever were, provides a seamless foundation for the group, adopting the restraint and self-effacement of a Tina Weymouth or Sean Yeaton of Parquet Courts. Although the album is still helmed by Toledo and his fastidious recording praxis, Dalby, Katz, and Ives serve as invaluable players, bringing nuance and energy to the updated Twin Fantasy.

Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) will doubtlessly go down as the lesser of the two iterations. As a remake with markedly higher fidelity, the album is certain to aggravate Car Seat purists, just as Teens of Denial did two years ago. But to new(er) fans, Face to Face will satisfy the itch engendered by the gestation period between those two records and remind that Denial wasn’t Car Seat Headrest’s first sprawling opus. And while it may not carry the same intrigue of a college student self-recording a lo-fi opus between classes, this new Twin Fantasy elucidates the masterfulness of an incisive indie savant whose creative reach had, until recently, exceeded his grasp. Where Mirror to Mirror was the fervent murmuring of young artist discovering his potential, Face to Face is the throat clearing that snaps the world to attention.

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