Many people I know are getting into the band now due to their newfound popularity, but Car Seat Headrest and I go way back. From listening to Bandcamp recordings in the back of my mom’s SUV at age 14, to crying in Main approximately right now to Twin Fantasy, Will Toledo’s music and lyrics have been a constant in my life. His words speak like a conversation – he’s talking directly to you, if you listen. This is exceptionally clear on “Beach-Life-in-Death,” a 12-minute epic on depression, failed relationships, furries and existentialism:
I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends
I never came out to my friends
We were all on Skype
And I laughed and changed the subject
She said, “What's with this dog motif?”
I said, “Do you have something against dogs?”
What’s a gay and confused kid to do? His confessional, honest style spoke volumes to me at times when I couldn’t explain my gender or sexuality to pretty much anyone. I connected with the fear of baring yourself, of showing who you really are. What if they think I’m a freak? What if they won’t talk to me anymore? What if I don’t care, because I’m not human anyway? Toledo perfectly conveys this experience, and I took comfort in that solidarity.
Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror), Car Seat Headrest’s sixth album released in 2011, is Toledo’s conceptual masterpiece. He recorded it with a laptop microphone and performed all the instruments on every track of the album. Back then, Car Seat Headrest was a prolific solo Bandcamp project with a deep cult following. His ambitious, youthful obsession with creating a snapshot of his life shines through, but it’s not just that. He captured the pain of a 19-year-old glaring at his reflection and wondering if he’ll ever be human while simultaneously hating humanity. It’s what makes Twin Fantasy so painfully relatable.
After signing with Matador Records in 2015, Car Seat Headrest became a breakout success. Toledo added three members to his project, which became his touring and recording band. Their 2016 album Teens of Denial earned Toledo heaps of praise for creating a dynamic rock album unlike anything the genre has seen in a long time. It’s not Twin Fantasy, but still carries his imaginative and melancholy songwriting and lyricism. If you’re interested in an introspective yet humorous “rock” album, this is the one for you.
Finally there was Face to Face, the 2018 re-release of my favorite album. I’ll be real here: I don’t like it, and I’m not just saying that because I’m attached to Mirror to Mirror. The nervous energy and rage at the world that propelled the original has faded, and I’m happy that Toledo was able to have a conversation with his younger self by re-hashing Twin Fantasy. But therein lies the problem – Twin Fantasy was Twin Fantasy because of that energy, that cynicism, that youthful distaste with humanity – and now? I’m not sure what to make of the fancier production and edited lyrics.
His kinetic, emotional performance on the old “Sober to Death,” punctuated by its fuzzy guitar and vocals, was a track that embodied the album as a whole. With persistence, Toledo described the simultaneous frustration and obsession of loving someone just as messed up as you are. On the new one? I don’t feel any of that desperation in the pained reassurance that “you and me won’t be alone no more.” Instead, it could be any other indie ballad with its layered acoustics and drum build. It loses its spirit.
I want to like it. I really do. Maybe I’ll come around eventually. After all, Face to Face is a different album, and it might be unfair to hold it to the same criteria as the original. For now, I’m going to hold onto my belief in art no matter its production value. The core of Twin Fantasy remains in both versions, though: It’s okay to wallow in your pain and longing.