In 2011 Car Seat Headrest, who were at the time essentially just Will Toledo, released an album called Twin Fantasy—one of dozens he’d uploaded to Bandcamp over the course of a year. It was a sprawling meditation on failed romance that hinted at artistic ambition beyond its maker’s years and budget. In 2018 Car Seat Headrest, now a bona fide band, are also releasing an album called Twin Fantasy, a re-recording of that 2011 LP that fleshes out the crude sketchings of the original into something ornate, enveloping, exhilarating, and dizzyingly complex. It is not only the best album in Toledo’s catalog, it is one of the young year’s best rock albums, period.
Toledo recently went to great pains on Twitter to stress the fact that Car Seat Headrest consists of four people, not one, and he was right to do so; Twin Fantasy wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the contributions of all its players. The 13-minute rollercoaster of “Beach Life-In-Death” is a master class in the slow build: Toledo’s voice and guitar enter first, operating at 100 miles an hour, then the whole song slams on the brakes; Seth Dalby’s bass bobs and weaves, Ethan Ives’ guitar claws away in the background, and Andrew Katz’s drums bash and clatter; then the whole band joins forces to push the song deeper into the red. Constructing rock songs with multiple melodic sections tends to feel like an intellectual exercise, but the way the band members play off one another in “Beach Life” makes each segment feel like a natural progression rather than a patched-together assemblage of mismatched parts. They also know when to pull back: In the song’s second section, the instruments recede so Toldeo can wonder aloud, “It’s been a year since we first met/ I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.”
That line serves as an early entrypoint into the record’s primary concerns. Twin Fantasy is an album about romantic relationships—and there are enough textual clues to suggest it’s mostly about one very specific romantic relationship. But it’s also about the ways that artists create fictional worlds and characters as a way to get in touch with real-life emotions, or to exert control over situations that, in their own lives, are uncontrollable. In the 2011 version of “Nervous Young Inhumans,” there was a spoken-word passage that’s excised on the re-recording, in which Toledo cites Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an inspiration, saying, “I used the term ‘galvanistic’ to allude to that book as a symbol of how I created you as a character. I’m pretending that I know a lot more about you than I actually do.” Even the language Toledo uses there is slippery, the two versions of ‘you’—the real and the fictional—used interchangeably, blurring the distance between them. (In the new version, he uses a more potent metaphor to accomplish the same ends: “Do you know about Jesus? Do you really know? All you know is what you’ve been told.”) And while Twin Fantasy is, on some level, about a doomed romantic relationship, it’s also about the ways we take those heartbreaks and build stories around them. That it’s about both, simultaneously, is one of the things that make Twin Fantasy such a head-spinning triumph. In the exuberant “Bodys,” just as the song is gaining momentum, Toledo pauses to explicitly acknowledge the song as a construct, asking, “Is it the chorus yet? No. It’s just the building of the verse, so when the chorus does come, it will be more rewarding.” That kind of metatextual, commenting-on-the-form-while-the-form-is-in-progress has been attempted in film—think of Imamura’s A Man Vanishes or the end of Taste of Cherry—and while there’s no shortage of satirical rock albums poking fun at the industry, what Toledo is attempting here is something more philosophical, a deep-dive textual examination that borders on semiotics.
All of this doesn’t make Twin Fantasy sound like very much fun, so let me stop here to say: it is a hell of a lot of fun, a big, rocketing collection of rock songs that balances Kinks-like vocal harmonies with knotty, virtuosic guitar work and choruses as vast and clear as a summer sky. And while much of Fantasy’s existential detective work is around Toledo the narrator, musically Twin Fantasy is very much about Car Seat Headrest, the band. “Nervous Young Inhumans” is a dazzling rush of adrenaline, Ives’s upward-spiraling guitar line giving the song a sense of jubilance and weightlessness. (If you want to truly appreciate the difference the band makes, compare this to the 2011 version, which felt blurry and unmoored.) “Famous Prophets”—which clocks in at 16 minutes—earns its triumphant crescendo, the band gently stoking the tension until the whole song explodes.
But even in the album’s rapturous moments, its underlying preoccupations seep through. On “Beach Life,” Toldeo writes and rewrites his own biography: “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends,” he sings, then immediately contradicts that narrative: “I never came out to my friends.” At the end of the bruising, hooky-as-hell, bash-and-pop anthem “Cute Thing,” he sings, “I accidentally spoke his first name aloud/ trying to make it fit in with the lyrics of ‘Ana Ng,’/ worked like a charm,” and then launches into a modified version of that They Might Be Giants song (Hopefully, Johns Flansburgh and Linnell are less litigious than Ric Ocasek.) And so we’re back to where we started: a real person inserted into pop song about a fake person to further mask their identity.
If there’s a final takeaway for Twin Fantasy it comes in the closing moments of the title track, when Toledo breaks the fourth wall one last time to speak to the object of his affections in a moment that recalls the introduction to Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. “This is the end of the song,” he says, then adds, “And it is just a song. This is a version of me and you that can exist outside everything else. And if it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen from here. The names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now.” That final phrase is a provocative one: when we embellish lived experience for the purposes of art—or, hell, even our own memories—which version becomes the real one? And does the “real” one even matter anymore? Or are reality and art just parallel versions—twin fantasies—of the same narrative we keep telling ourselves?
In “Beach Life-In-Death,” Toledo despairs, “I spent a week in Ocean City/ and came back to find you were gone/ I spent a week in Illinois/ and came back to find you were still gone.” In “Twin Fantasy,” he revisits those verses, but this time, the outcome is different: “When I come back, you’ll still be here/ When I come back, you’ll still be here.” It scans like Toledo going back into his own story, fixing the parts he didn’t like. He’s doing the same thing with Twin Fantasy on a macro level, revisiting a collection of songs that deserved more than he was able to give it at the time. The result is a blistering rock record of tremendous scope and heft, richly detailed and overflowing with memorable melodies. It is Car Seat Headrest’s first masterpiece.