The release of the remake of Seattle indie rock outfit Car Seat Headrest’s 2011 album Twin Fantasy provides music fans with a unique opportunity. The album, given the subtitle Face to Face for clarification along with the original gaining the title Mirror to Mirror, separates the masses into two groups: those who have heard the original, and those who haven’t. The latter group is the only selection of people who will be able to judge this new album completely without past association or without the context of the original album to supplement or detract from the new version. Because of this, I think it’d be valuable to compile these two different perspectives into one review to give both sides of this complex, innovative project. So, that’s what we’ve done. Enjoy.
Will Toledo created Car Seat Headrest and began making and later releasing his own music in 2010. His DIY production tactic lasted until 2015 when he was signed to Matador Records. Twin Fantasy was originally recorded on Toledo’s computer and self-released in 2011, but has since been re-recorded (now with a full band) and released in 2018. The original was renamed Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) while the re-recording was named Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) to differentiate the two.
Having never heard the original Twin Fantasy album, I did not know what to expect from the new release. I’ve always classified Car Seat Headrest as primarily indie-rock, nonetheless Twin Fantasy has a much heavier pop sound than their older albums Teens of Style and Teens of Denial. There is sound coming from each direction and yet it seems to fit perfectly with Toledo’s vocals. The album as a whole seems to tell the story of a younger Toledo who is struggling with many of the things people struggle with: depression, self-acceptance and difficult relationships. Toledo’s lyrics are very honest and intimate, expressing insecurities and fears that he deals with.
Over 13 minutes long, “Beach-Life-In-Death” is still not the longest song on the album (“Famous Prophets” is over 16 minutes), but what a rollercoaster of a song it is. With extravagant amounts of guitar playing at once and Toledo’s smooth monologues, the song is absolutely captivating. There are so many different sections mashed together in the track it almost feels like a string of different demos, which I find makes the song completely inimitable. The whole song seems to be a battle he is having with himself in his head, beginning with a call-and-response tactic. “What should I do? (Eat breakfast)/ What should I do? (Eat lunch)/ What should I do? (Eat dinner).” Further into the track Toledo screams, “I don’t want to have schizophrenia” with an engulfing amount of sound produced all at once. You yourself can hear all of the noise going on in his head as he writes the lyric.
There is an interesting contrast between the tracks “Stop Smoking (We Love You)” and “High to Death” where in the first song Toledo says, “Stop smoking, we love you” and in the latter he says, “Keep smoking, I still love you” as though as the album progresses, Toledo himself is changing. The short track “Stop Smoking (We Love You)” leaves you wondering if Toledo is talking to someone else when he says, “Stop smoking, we love you” or if someone is instead saying that to him. That being said, in “High to Death” I get the feeling that the message, “Keep smoking, I still love you/ But I don’t wanna die” is something that Toledo is saying to himself and struggling with.
Another contrast found with the track “High to Death” is an earlier track titled “Sober to Death.” In “High to Death” Toledo’s tone sounds desperate; almost like a cry for help. He sounds defeated as he says, “I wish I was sober/ I can’t get up off the ground” and then later says, “And I sat there on the steps considering death”. There is an interesting inclusion of voice recordings throughout this track. Toward the middle of the track you can hear a child say, “Let me out William,” and then further into the song there is a voice message from a girl explaining her state of mind when making her artwork. Neither of these recordings are really explained and instead become a sort of mysterious element to the album. The track “Sober to Death” is similar in the sense that the song is about fighting battles with yourself in your head. Alternatively, the narrative of this track includes another person he is in a relationship with where both partners are unstable. Toledo says, “You know that good lives make bad stories” and later says, “I wanna hear you going psycho/ If you’re going psycho I wanna hear” telling his partner that they’re in it together and even if it burns it’ll make a good story one day.
The whole album was a masterpiece sprinkled with cryptic monologues, heavy music and organic lyricism. Car Seat Headrest has always been a band that stands apart from the rest, and as they grow and change so does their music.
The concept of revisiting and recreating Twin Fantasy was concerning to myself and other long-time Car Seat Headrest fans. After all, the record was perfect, right? Any faults with the overwhelming lo-fi recording quality added to the overall atmosphere of Twin Fantasy that we’ve come to know and love over these seven years. But this isn’t about us. According to frontman and creator Will Toledo himself, “it was never a finished work”. Years after the fact, Toledo has discovered a way to finish the grand and deeply personal work that encompasses a time in his life that he feels could not be properly conveyed as a 19-year-old recording on his laptop. Now he’s back, full band and record deal in tow, to slay this beast and totally, actually, create Twin Fantasy. And he’s done a damn good job.
I would like to evaluate this work completely on its own but, given the circumstances, this album will come to be defined by some by what has changed rather than what it is. Most of the song structures remain intact, akin to new flesh on old bones. Make no mistake, however: Twin Fantasy has changed. First off, and possibly most importantly, the low recording quality that may have served as a barrier for some speculative fans is now gone. Twin Fantasy (Face To Face) features crisp and clean production that elevates the impact of some songs and unfortunately neuters a couple of others, namely the acoustic vignette “Stop Smoking,” which loses its attractive ethereal quality and becomes pretty standard in comparison. The song that gains the most in reproduction is undoubtedly “High To Death.” Being the only song on Twin Fantasy that admittedly overtly suffered for me from the poor recording quality, the new and improved “High To Death” reveals the song’s structures in a much clearer and flattering scope.
This album is very much an adaptation in the sense that these songs have simply been reworked to fit the new sound that Car Seat Headrest have worked out for themselves because, well, they are a “they” now. Toledo is no longer left to explore these soundscapes on his own which leads to a more a dynamic and intricate sound. “Nervous Young Inhumans,” once a more understated indie pop track, now explodes in a lush array of synths and guitars but stops in the verses, leaving only Toledo and a drum track to provide a sense of auditory whiplash when the chorus bolts back into frame. One of the greatest changes comes from the end of the massive “Beach Life-In-Death,” which begins its last verse with a familiar shuffling tempo but then surprisingly puts the pedal to metal, quickly transforming into an aggressive romp backed by a wall of guitar fuzz that culminates by shooting into the sky and detonating into a mutated version of the iconic glitched-out effects from the original version. Except for some particular stylistic changes, “Bodys,” “Cute Thing,” and “Sober To Death” stay the same, more or less, but nonetheless still give vastly different experiences due to their cleaner production.
One of the most prominent changes made is the extra six (!) minutes added to the end of “Famous Prophets (Stars).” The new ending begins with Toledo playing a piano-led reprise of the melody from the original song. This section eventually leads into a horn-filled finale, with sampled vocals from “My Boy,” the album’s opening track, playing in the background. This new addition makes the song lengthy to the point of avoidance for some people, but like with “Beach Life-In-Death,” the variety of structures and movements in the song keeps it fresh and engaging.
In terms of lyrics, the changes are few but extremely significant. “Nervous Young Inhumans” has been changed to remove any mention of the concept of galvanism in the chorus and in the monologue at the end, and on “Cute Thing” Toledo changes his idols from Dan Bejar and John Enwhistle to Frank Ocean and James Brown, with Ocean gaining another reference on “Beach Life-In-Death”, where a reversed sample of Toledo singing “It was the start of something” plays as a reference to Ocean’s song “Ivy.” These changes seem to be an effort of adaptation, where Toledo brings some antiquated references to himself and to his ideas to the present where they more accurately align with who he is now.
Yet, some of the lyrics were changed to make even more reference to the past, such as on “Beach Life-In-Death” with the line “In the mall in the nighttime/You came back alone with a flashlight” which is a reference to Cate Wurtz, the ex-lover who both versions of the album revolve around, comic Crow Cillers and the two references to the “pain star” on “Nervous Young Inhumans” and “Famous Prophets (Stars)”, which is a concept that Toledo and Wurtz invented. This mix of the old and the new are examples of the effect that this new version has, with concepts from past and present clashing and morphing into something brand new but very much familiar for some of us.
Along with the section at the end of Nervous Young Inhumans, the spoken word pieces on “Famous Prophets (Stars)” and “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)” have been altered as well. The ending to “Famous Prophets (Stars)” is now a different Bible verse spoken by Reesa Mallen, who the album credits refer to as “Margot”. The verse is now 1 Corinthians 13, verses 8-13, which talks of reflection and growth, using a literal mirror as a metaphor for how we view the present through a barrier, only to see it “face to face” when we’ve moved on from the past. This functions as a summation for the idea behind this remake and the force that drives it: reflection. Through revisiting this album, Toledo gets to retread this old, hallowed ground with the clarity that might not have been afforded to him in the time of this relationship.
Then, he lays the album and the past to rest at the end of “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)”, where, in another spoken word interlude, he describes his freedom. “This is the end of the song, and it is just a song,” he begins. “It’s a version of me and you that can exist outside of everything else, and if it is just a fantasy, anything can happen from here.” As he says, Toledo releases himself, and his memory of Wurtz, from this fantasy borne from the cold grip of romanticization of the past and, at the time, the present. He continues, “The contract is up, the names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now,” mirroring the ending of the monologue from the original song. Addressing us and himself, Toledo dissolves the weight of these words, some the same that he spoke with terror so long ago, into their simplest form, absolving them of any power and control that they once had over his life. But, as if a reminder that this album will never truly lose its enchantment to some, the album ends as it always has, with the line “When I come back you’ll still be here.” A lyric, and a moment, recontextualized.
Earlier in this review I mentioned being nervous about the release of this album. After meditating on the album and all the lore that surrounds it, however, I came to an important realization: absolutely nobody could be more nervous about Twin Fantasy (Face To Face) than Will Toledo himself. Toledo gets the unusual opportunity to play God twice on the same creation and remake it in his own image–not his image then, but his image now. But at the same time, this album is a funeral as much as it is a rebirth. Toledo’s old wounds remained open because he never got to make the album that he wanted, but now the cuts can be sewn shut and the dust of what was once a mountain can be scattered on the wind to their final resting place. Toledo gets to move on, his respect paid and his exorcism performed, but the work gets to stay with us. This album, in both iterations, will continue on in our lives for as long as we let it, like two mirrors facing each other producing an impossible landscape expanding forever into the infinite.