Connection Without Barriers
By Jan de Vries
March 15, 2019 | 15:00 last updated
Now that we are well into 2019, it is arguably a bit late to reflect back on 2018. That said, I am going to do it anyway because I have not had the chance to give my favorite album of last year - Car Seat Headrests' Twin Fantasy - the proper praise that it deserves. In this article, I try to demonstrate my love for this album in the hopes to pique the interest of readers into feeling motivated to give it an honest listen.
The music act originates from the solo efforts of Will Toledo, who, based in Virginia, started writing and recording songs after finishing high school in the backseat of his car, hence the band name Car Seat Headrest. After various self-released works, he finished Twin Fantasy in 2011. Although technically a 2011 album, the reworked 2018 version is an improvement in virtually every way. A comparison should demonstrate this clearly.
The 2011 version is an incredibly echoic, detail-stripped record with less complicated audio tracks and flourishes than last year's version. The compressed audio, an effect of the lo-fi recording process, leaves little room for the different audio tracks to be properly differentiated in the ears of the listener. The result of this is that the music blends together to form one blur of sound. It is in this way that the more personal recording style manages to be, paradoxically, less intimate than the 2018 version. But despite its barebones, unpolished aesthetic, all the essential elements of the album are here. The creative songwriting and thematic content were already present in the 2011 version; a testament to Will Toledo's incredible potential as a songwriter.
In the upgraded 2018 version some of the more juvenile parts of the album have been reworked or taken out. (Will was only 19 when he first conceptualized the album!) There are less panicked voice cracks and screams, some slight changes in the lyrics have been made, and the longer tracks of the album have been extended further to create soundscapes that are reflective, quiet, and downright beautiful. Overall, these changes, alongside the upgraded recording quality, constitute a matured record that is able to achieve what the original version set out to achieve, but couldn't.
Twin Fantasy was always meant to be intimate, something which is showcased in the music and in the lyrics. Thematically, the album explores the difficulty of human communication. How language and social norms form obstacles in our search of connection is the main theme. We can hear this in Will's lyrics. To give some examples, ''those are you got some nice shoulders'' perfectly captures the awkwardness of trying to compliment someone who you are romantically interested in. Meanwhile, ''That's not what I meant to say at all, I mean, I'm sick of meaning I just want to hold you'', is more explicit in its relation to the aforementioned theme of troubled communication.
The intimacy of the music is also visible in the cover art of the album. It depicts two embracing creatures. They are skinny and fragile, yet in perfect unity, as elements of their bodies literally conjoin. It plays back on the central hope of the album, which is vocalized at the end of ''Sober to Death'':
''Don't worry, you and me won't be alone no more.'' This lyric is repeated eleven times, accompanied by radically alternating maximal/minimal instrumentation. Over the course of the repetitions, the clash of sounds gradually starts to subdue until it cuts out completely. It's as if the music itself stops struggling, finally willing to believe in those wonderful words. This is why the image on the cover of the album is so striking; why it's on the wall in my room; why it's on a shirt I wear.
On the 13th of November, I saw Car Seat Headrest perform live. And although the energy was certainly palpable, I was more fixated on Will's reclusive performance. Before the band had even started, someone in the audience - all hyped up - screamed: ''I love you, Will!'' To which Will replied, in a monotone and sober voice: ''that's never a good sign.'' People laughed, but I think he meant it. I don't want to suggest that Will is an anti-social person, but from his appearance on stage that evening one could definitely conclude as much. His introduction was short and impersonal, and his performance that followed was not more inviting. Will sang and played with a thick bush of hair covering his face, such that it is safe to say that, despite my fixation, I was unable to see his eyes for the entirety of the concert. It was as if he was shielding himself from his audience. The only thing that seemed to be capable of moving his body was the energy of the music. It seemed to spark his body with jolts of electricity, creating a convulsive pattern of movement that did not seem to be steered by his brain.
For all its intimacy Twin Fantasy is not a boring album. It is an indie rock record filled with long build-ups and cathartic breakdowns. It is permeated with Will's laconically uttered doubts and insecurities, but also provides room to let go of those in explosive and catchy choruses. Amidst these accomplishments, it also manages not to be too emotionally taxing through the use of clever (meta)humor. It is with these final words of appraisal that I hope to have done justice to this phenomenal album.