CAR SEAT HEADREST'STWIN FANTASY& QUEER TEENAGE SADNESS
WORDS | Liam Hansen (he/they)
The four and a half years since Car Seat Headrest re- released Twin Fantasy have been a weird time. It’s how I first discovered them. I'm pretty young, so it's been around a quarter of my life - but an eventful time nonetheless. Twin Fantasy was a flaming molotov of sonic emotion that gave a soundtrack to the periods of isolation, bouts of loneliness and yearning I was going through. The group’s leader, Will Toledo, crooned lyrics that despite their specificity to his own life and memories, drew direct parallels to my own fucked experience of high school and teenagehood. Queer loneliness, obsessive narratives involving people you hardly know, and feeling constantly anxious and inhuman were all big themes in my manifesto of teenage angst. I listened through both versions of Twin Fantasy and the rest of CSH’s discography religiously. I eventually got the embarrassing notification from Spotify that I was in the top 0.01% of their listeners. So, as I start to transition into a new chapter of my life (I’m still a mess but WAY cooler), I feel a bizarre need to reflect on my relationship with Twin Fantasy and how I perceive it now. If I don’t, my friends will be subjected to lengthy dissections of why I love these stupid albums so much. It’s only a matter of time before everyone gets suspicious about why I’m so connected to an LP with two lil characters hugging on the cover.
The first iteration of Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) was written, recorded and released solo by Will Toledo when he was just 19, long before he had the resources, bandmates, perspective and skill we see now. The album is raw, messy and lo-fi as fuck in its composition, recording and, most beautifully, in its lyrics. It’s a concept album, detailing a fresh breakup and the whirlwind that it put his mind through. Toledo’s stream-of-consciousness writing style is awkward, anxious and searingly honest. His lyrics are often visual, such as the verse from ‘High to Death’ - “And I said hell is the sun, Burning forever at the centre of things, A ball on fire at the centre of things ... A brain on fire at the centre of things”. It’s probably due to my love for the game Night in The Woods which contains a similar phrase, but I can’t help but feel the existentialism in these words. He sees the sun as nothing more than a flaming ball we revolve around and compares it to how our lives can revolve around mental illness - our brains on fire.
In ‘Bodys’, he screams “Those are you got some nice shoulders, I’d like to put my hands around them!” with confidence, despite the awkward teenage boy language. This same vibe is held in the spoken word outro of ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’, where he breaks the fourth wall trying to explain and justify the use of the word ‘galvanistic’ earlier in the song. He gets further into his own head about it, eventually regretting having written the line at all. There’s so many incredibly specific lyrics across the entire album.
This made them uncomfortably relatable - and I started drawing parallels to my life at the time, obsessing over both versions of the record. There are moments when he reuses the meta, spoken- word motif from ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’ in the title track and conclusion of the album - “This is the part of the song where Will gives up. He dissociates himself from his own romance until it becomes just a fantasy. This is not something that could happen to him; this is something that takes place only in his mind. But he blinks now, and shakes himself awake. He has rejoined society. Come, dear children, call no more. He has only lyrics now.” This doesn't just cut deep, it stabs me. Without going into too much detail: it's similar to my own fucked up fantasy relationship that I experienced as an openly queer teenage boy, dealing with trauma and loneliness. Anyway, I've exposed myself enough. Just listen to the albums - the story's all there, folks.
The nakedness of Mirror to Mirror is a lot to take in. It must be strange and difficult for Toledo to have a cringeworthy teenage breakup/emotional mass exodus album become a runaway indie hit. The years after the album's release saw both his humble listenership and discography progressively grow. He went on to get permanent bandmates and a record deal, meaning he could give
the album the second chance it deserves. I discovered Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) long before its predecessor - ‘Bodys’ was the track that initially sold me, but the rest of the album very quickly followed suit. The energy, honesty and heartbreaking storytelling astounded me. I streamed it hundreds of times before I began listening to its 2011 recordings, which brought about an entirely new perception of their modern counterpart.
The 2018 mix retains all its charm despite the more polished audio quality, and the jump in vocal skill Toledo presents is insane. I’m aware that Face to Face isn’t the most boundary pushing or unique work on the planet - it’s probably quite difficult for a rock album to do so in the twenty-first century. The band simply focuses on the refinement and expansion of ideas forecast by groups like The Beach Boys and The Strokes. They wear their influences on their sleeves and present them at their absolute fucking best.
Although there’s a lot of moments I love on Mirror to Mirror, they reach their full potential here and become some of my favourite pieces of music ever recorded. These include the unrestricted energy of ‘Bodys’ choruses, how opposing instrumentals are switched back and forth on the extended outro of ‘Sober to Death’, and when he yells the line “I hoped you were using your sonar systems for me!” in the third part of ‘Beach Life-in-Death’. In Mirror to Mirror this line is SCREAMED, straining and breaking Toledo’s voice to the point that he has to switch registers mid-verse. However, on its 2018 counterpart, the same lyric is belted skillfully, allowing him to properly give it a melody and letting his voice stylishly break without entirely killing it - making sure the line is sung just as, if not more, passionately than he sung it seven years prior. The abilities of his bandmates are brought forth as well, seen when lead guitarist Ethan Ives provides fresh, complex guitar work on songs like ‘Sober to Death’ and ‘Cute Thing’. All that being said, however, I don’t think it’s fair to simply call this album a remake - it’s much more than that.
Having created such a comprehensive piece of art based on his life, this album feels like Toledo looking through a memory book and re-experiencing all of the emotions from his youth with a newfound perspective. You know when you take a look at old photographs, playlists or writing created during your high school years and feel an intense rush of nostalgia for all the dumb shit you did, regret for everything you didn’t do and the same angst, despite everything that’s happened since? These are all the emotions that Toledo is feeling and trying to present in Face to Face.
Not only are his performances more mature and confident, but he changes the lyrics in places. A verse in ‘Beach Life-In-Death’ gets replaced, from Toledo reflecting on his youth as a nineteen-year-old, to him referencing pieces of art that re-framed how he felt about the relationship. The spoken word outro of ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’ is no longer written to someone else - I think he’s addressing his younger self, and letting them know how he’s changed. But ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ is far and away the most altered track from its predecessor, down to its name being changed from ‘Famous Prophets (Minds)’. Toledo extends his repetition of the line “We gotta go back” - sung over and over again, intensifying each time, pleading to go back to teenagehood and the relationship, despite how toxic it was. But eventually the tense, distorted, and destroyed atmosphere is abruptly snatched away. Toledo and a sombre piano are left alone as he quavers the same lyrics he screamed at the top of his lungs just moments beforehand. He reaches the emotional breaking point by singing the lyric “What happened to you?” in a heartbroken falsetto. I’m continually brought back to this moment, as it accompanied me years ago when my mental health was at its worst. I turned to this song and album as a whole during the periods of lockdown-induced isolation, pent up frustration and self-hatred. I don’t know if it actually made me feel any better - I just felt everything, every emotion that one could have, all at once. To this day, the isolated piano and the intense breakdown that comes afterward is the single most beautiful moment in music that I have ever listened to. The final song of Face to Face, ‘Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)’, solidifies its place as the nostalgia-fuelled re-evaluation of Mirror to Mirror. The 2011 version sees him give up and put his fantastical relationship away in his head, but in 2018 he addresses the person the album is written about directly. “This is the end of the song, and it is just a song. This is a version of me and you that can exist outside of everything else. And if it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen
Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) is my favourite album ever written, featuring my favourite song ever recorded, ‘Beach Life-in-Death’ and performed by a band that has emotionally driven me up a wall like nobody else. The emotional vulnerability Will Toledo puts on display is masterful, purposeful and incredible. The skill of his bandmates form one of the most energetic dynamics in music I’ve ever heard. Raw honesty in art like this is why listeners are left in awe and brought to tears. It’s why I feel the need to write and create emotional experiences, and it’s why I’m bringing up such personal and cringeworthy parts of my life despite the full knowledge that my friends, family, old schoolmates, future colleagues, and the motherfucker who probably has no idea he’s why this album hits so hard could be reading this (hi). I barely even scratched the surface of how many parts of this album
I love, where it sits in the rest of CSH’s discography and how it fell into my life exactly when I needed it most. Thus, this is my official pitch to please let me write the 331/3 on this album. This is not a joke - Bloomsbury, you can reach me at email@example.com. I will write you a fucking masterpiece.