“You gotta listen to Twin Fantasy!” urged my friend to me at about the same time that Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 Teens of Denial was prompting me to reconsider whether rock was actually dead. I knew lead singer and songwriter Will Toledo had already released a whopping 12 albums under the Car Seat moniker before signing with Matador Records, but after watching Toledo shriek out “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a toy drum set to accompany him in what must be the shrillest Tiny Desk Concert to date, I struggled to believe that his work could get any more lo-fi.
When I did finally endeavor into Toledo’s 2011 homemade opus Twin Fantasy, I was torn. While I could recognize the gumption of a kid who self recorded 10 minute rock n’ roll epics about his depression and somehow had the talent to make it all sound convincing, I struggled to plod my way through the blown-out vocals and macgyvered production to find something that resonated with me. Eventually, after several more dogged listens, I finally accepted defeat and admitted to myself that I just couldn’t get into Twin Fantasy.
Everyone wants to vicariously live through their lo-fi heroes, and it’s fun it is to ignore the implicit survivor bias that the success of bands like Car Seat Headrest present so that we can confidently exclaim “if they can do it, so can I!” The truth of the matter, though, is when it comes to our DIY deities, few of us are willing to eat dirt and embrace their earlier, less sexy works when their more recent, glossier albums are so much more accessible. Sure, first works of musicians are usually pretty rough, but I’ve dismissed plenty of gems simply because they have some bad mixing. How do I know they’re gems? Because whether or not 2011’s Twin Fantasy was marred by its laptop gestation, the recently re-recorded and re-released Twin Fantasy is as good as anything you will hear in 2018.
Throughout Car Seat Headrest’s discography, Toledo reminds us that you can be as self-indulgent as you want in your self-hatred and still make good music, so long as you are self-aware enough to realize how comedic the whole situation is. Twin Fantasy is no different. Lyrics like “last night I dreamed he was trying to kill you, I woke up and I was trying to kill you” in “Beach Life-in-Death,” are at once devastating, hilarious and a bit strange.
Toledo’s lyrics are deliberately contradictory because contradiction is inextricable from the human experience, especially in the context of a teenager who is trying to make sense of adulthood, social expectations, sexuality, drug use and mental illness. The amalgamation of all of these dizzying influences is manifest in songs like “Stop Smoking, We Love You,” in which Toledo repeats the song’s title behind an acoustic backing track that’s straight out of an MTV unplugged session. It’s difficult for the listener to discern whether Toledo’s making an honest plea to a loved one, humorously regurgitating a request that has become a platitude, or both, made all the more vexing by a later track “High to Death” in which Toledo implores “keep smoking, I love you.” Somehow, the confusion makes the song that much more convincing.
Moreover, Toledo’s Sun Kil Moon-esq stream of consciousness storytelling and brutal honesty make his songs even more believable, if not sometimes uncomfortable. Indeed, Twin Fantasy lyrics can often feel awkward (“those are you got some nice shoulders, I’d like to put my hands around them” in “Bodys”) or even omittable (“the speed limit kept decreasing by ten” in “Beach Life-in-Death”). Toledo expresses every part of his life — the devastatingly sad, the transcendent, the boring and the confusing — leaving out nothing. As a result, his songs reflect not what he wants his life to be, but rather what his life is, which is why his Twin Fantasy typifies the experiences of a young adult better than most other recently released coming-of-age albums.
It’s human nature to disregard things that do not meet our immediate criteria for being valuable, especially when we have a long list of things to go through (like Car Seat’s discography), and Matador Records seems to be keenly aware that sometimes you need to repackage the same product to get recognition. So whether 2018’s re-recorded Twin Fantasy finalizes a rough draft or is simply the music equivalent of the iPhone 8, I don’t know, and I don’t really care. At the end of the day, it’s far easier to embrace Toledo’s craft when he’s not singing into a laptop mic and is backed by a real drummer, so on that basis alone, I’m enjoying the hell out of this record.
Jesse Martens is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].