Car Seat Headrest’s “Twin Fantasy” is unlike any other album I’ve heard.
That’s not supposed to be a statement of glowing praise — although “Twin Fantasy” is certainly deserving of it, as we’ll get into — but rather a statement to be taken literally.
While “Twin Fantasy” technically just came out last week, it also came out in 2011. The band’s lead singer and main songwriter, Will Toledo, originally wrote and recorded the album seven years ago and released it for free on Bandcamp. Back then, the band was still a solo act.
And while some of Car Seat Headrest’s most ardent followers proclaimed it to be Toledo’s masterpiece, it also sort of sounded like it was recorded in a tin can.
Now that Toledo is signed to Matador Records and can actually record professionally, he decided to do a complete re-recording of the album that is hailed by so many of his fans as his best.
This sort of top-to-bottom redo is typically reserved for the world of video games; very few other forms of media have seen the original creator just totally do a body of work over after it’s already been released.
But here, it’s worth it. Toledo managed to turn a great album into something even better, perhaps a classic.
The best part about any Car Seat Headrest album is undoubtedly Toledo’s lyrics. Toledo is surely the best lyricist in indie rock, blending a Beat Generation obsession with stream of consciousness with a Hemingwayan level of simplicity.
Toledo’s lyrics feel shockingly personal because of this. With lyrics that constantly reference other songs of his on previous records, his body of work becomes so interconnected that it’s about as far from a standard “one-size-fits-all” pop music approach to lyrics as possible. That is to say, you might find elements of yourself in Toledo’s words, but they are ultimately, and intimately, his words.
And “Twin Fantasy” is perhaps the most personal we’ve ever seen the singer get. Each song on the record is about the same individual, another young man who was the object of Toledo’s affections around the time of the writing of the record, when he was only 19.
While ostensibly a concept album, the concept is less akin to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and more like Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music. Shakespeare wrote over 120 loosely connected sonnets, many of which are addressed to a young man, that never followed any specific story line, but instead just captured brief snapshots of the writer’s love. “Twin Fantasy” is more like that.
In these snapshots, Toledo captures what it is to be young and in love — it’s thrilling; it’s scary; it’s painful.
But this doesn’t mean that each song is just a gushing love song. In fact, most aren’t. Instead, they’re facets of Toledo’s life, focusing on the way his beloved affects it.
“Bodys,” a mid-album cut, blends a series of ideas, jumping back and forth between commentaries on mortality and the music itself, all the while viewing them through the lens of the beloved.
“But that’s not what I wanted to say at all,/ I mean, I’m sick of meaning,/ I just wanna hold you,” Toledo blurts out at the beginning of the track. But upon realizing the potential awkwardness of what he just said, Toledo tries to change the subject:
“Is it the chorus yet?/ No. It’s just the building of the verse. / So when the chorus does come, it’ll be more rewarding,” he says.
But the “reward” Toledo offers on what could be called the chorus — Toledo’s unconventional song structures make it difficult to firmly pick out conventional elements — is a dark one.
“Don’t you realize our bodies could fall apart at any second?” he asks. Then, making it about the beloved once again, “I am terrified your body could fall apart at any second.”
Each song on “Twin Fantasy” deserves this sort of in-depth analysis of the lyrics. They are rich, complex and rewarding.
And Toledo delivers them all brilliantly. Switching deftly between a soft, spacey croon and an abrasive caterwaul, Toledo has a knack for pumping the exact kind of emotion necessary into his vocals to match his lyrics.
These vocals fit beautifully over buzzing, noisy instrumentals. In long, meandering songs that never lose energy, Car Seat Headrest echos alt-rock acts of yesteryear, especially calling to mind groups like Sonic Youth.
This is especially true of the album’s lengthy lead single, “Beach-Life-in-Death.” The dizzyingly energetic track hits you like a steam engine, seeming to tell the story of the end of Toledo’s time with his man, despite it being an early album cut.
About mid-way through the 13-minute song, Toledo beautifully sums up the feeling of being left by a lover.
“I don’t want to go insane,” comes Toledo’s staccato declaration. A beat comes after each syllable, with each enunciation becoming more powerful, until Toledo is screaming the final word. Who among us hasn’t felt like that after being left?
The most brilliant thing about “Twin Fantasy,” though, is the way Toledo uses the re-recording process to recontextualize the album. Toledo doesn’t fall into the depths of micromanaging that Kanye West did on his endless fiddling with “The Life of Pablo,” but he makes a handful of changes that make the re-recording tell a very different story from the original.
Most are small — in the 2011 version of “Cute Thing,” Toledo asks God to give him a voice like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, while in 2018 he would rather sound like Frank Ocean — but a change to the album’s closer, “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)” is the most poignant.
Originally, Toledo delivers a painful closing monologue:
“This is the part of the song where Will gives up. He dissociates himself from his own romance until it becomes just a fantasy… He has only lyrics now,” he says.
In 2018, though, it’s different.
“This is the end of the song, and it is just a song. It’s a version of me and you that can exist outside of everything else, and if it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen from here … These are only lyrics now,” the new version suggests.
For Car Seat Headrest, the two versions of “Twin Fantasy” are a moment of sonic growth. A better version of the recording makes it easier to listen to, easier to appreciate Toledo’s story.
But for Toledo himself, the two versions of the album are a very different sort of growth. For the 25-year-old Toledo, this story is just that: a story. He’s no longer wracked by the pain that tortured 19-year-old Toledo. He’s moved past it and become better for it.
Being able to see this growth first hand truly makes “Twin Fantasy” unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Album: ‘Twin Fantasy’
Artist: Car Seat Headrest
Best Songs: ‘Beach-Life-in-Death,’ ‘Cute Thing’