Secret Meeting score: 87
by Martin Ramsbottom
As an exemplar of the DIY indie aesthetic, Will Toledo, alias, Car Seat Headrest, has worn his digital fame unassumingly and awkwardly. His early modus operandi was to self-record and release as much output as possible through his Bandcamp site, which afforded him the digital anonymity and lack of personal interaction emblematic of 21st century alienation.
As such, 2011’s Twin Fantasy, now parenthesised as Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) to avoid confusion, is considered his masterpiece by this faceless crowd. So it remained until last December when a new version of the sprawling Beach Life-In-Death was released, fuelling fan conjecture of a full re-recorded version.
There is not much precedence set for this sort of re-modelling. For many artists, returning to work forged in teenage fury can feel embarrassingly mawkish or gaudy and immature, at times perhaps wanting to separate or compartmentalise that part of their career. The initial incarnation of Twin Fantasy was suited to its medium- a compressed and insular lo-fi record cut on a laptop microphone and only embellished by some rudimentary desktop tools – Toledo holding up a mirror to the ugly rawness of the emotion coursing through the content.
My Boy (twin fantasy) as the record’s lugubrious and lumbering opener finds Toledo channelling Beck Hansen and Julian Casablancas as he croaks the track’s only lyrics, “my boy we don’t see each other much/it’ll take some time/but somewhere down the line/we won’t be alone”. Seth Dolby’s bass is the notable addition to this fattened update and gives the track more purpose as it leads the refrained lyric to its full-band, clamorous epiphany. Yet My Boy is soon dispensed, a mere forgotten part IV, perhaps, of the only other track on Side A, a sprawling, jarring epic at thirteen minutes, split into three parts.
In Beach Life-In-Death, like the deliberately lifted Life-In-Death character from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Toledo is deeply afflicted by this formative relationship which has clearly cursed his foundations as he viscerally determines, “I am almost completely soulless/I am incapable of being human/I am incapable of being inhuman”. Unlike the wedding guest’s initial impatience at being recounted the story by the mariner, Beach Life-In-Death hooks the listener into its Kerouacianstream of consciousness. It is a song of obsession; a vomit of angst, power struggles, loneliness and depression and quite possibly one of the best tracks we’ve heard so far this year. It’s a conversation, not a monologue – the original performance along with the clunky lyrics read from the record sleeve feel like bad parental voyeurism into a teenager’s diary.
The success in the 2018 version of Beach Life-In-Death and Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) overall is its ability to levitate some of its lyrics into new meaning through the contours of the performance and delivery. “We said we hated humans/we wanted to be humans” in its current incarnation is a mastery of arrangement and vocalisation as the lyric is rendered a beautiful, succinct and suggestive nod to misanthropy and outsiderism; we are completely with Toledo in his numbness and out-of-step inability to perform the banalities of normal life immediately after the disintegration of an intense relationship.
This is Toledo’s masterpiece, yet this new arrangement would be nothing without the virtuoso performances of Seth Dolby, Ethan Ives and Andrew Katz. After all this, perhaps the strongest pathos that can be attributed to such a catatonic experience is delivered in the line, “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 I changed the subject”. For Toledo it is a sequestered love, his experience not easily shared.
The trio of tracks Sober to Death, Nervous Young Inhumans and Bodys cement this rendition as a qualified success and despite its predecessor’s cult status and critical praise, tracks from the first outing sound like bad demos compared to their new iterations. They all clearly benefit from accompaniment and justify Toledo’s return to them as far beyond a vainly indulgent take on past glories. Sober To Death (sickening sickening humans) is the most overt break-up track on the record, substituting bedsit strumming and crooning for accomplished jangle pop. It is clear Toledo, now 25, delivering the lyric “you know that good lives make bad stories/you can text me/when punching mattresses gets old” is freed from the shackles of the late-teen chrysalis of confused identity, returns to this lyric with new perspective and a desire that yearns for normality and stability. It has none of the fullness of teenage abandon that constitutes a ‘good life’ but makes bad stories when recounted in retrospect. The beauty of this lyric is its original incantation appears to have a completely inverse meaning.
Nervous Young Inhumans has been given new vigour through synth-led instrumentation and Bodys, with arrangement, is the most accessible track on the record for a casual listener, channelling the Strokes better than they have themselves since roughly 2003. It is an ode to being young, of sexual lust, the allure of alcoholic abandon and escapology. Toledo confidently opines, “that’s not what I meant to say at all/i mean/i’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you” in full teenage naiveté before lapsing into a languid Courtney Barnett-esque drawl of spoken comedy “(Is it the chorus yet?/No. It’s just a building of the verse/So when the chorus does come/It’ll be more rewarding.)” It is a carefree anthem, epitomised by the lyric “these are the people that I get drunk with/these are the people that I fell in love with” drawing an obvious comparison with “well over there, there’s friends of mine…But I just cannot get angry in the same way” – the lager-stained coda of A Certain Romance, bookending Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut.
By degrees to the success of the rest of the record, Famous Prophets (a song about Jesus), titled like a bad college poetry project or a track from a forgetful Seattle-based band on a free compilation with Uncut magazine, is the other sprawling track on the record at sixteen minutes. It doesn’t quite soar like Beach Life-In-Death – it has its moments but feels set up for self-parody with the lyric “so descend into cliché/if the music has forsaken you”.
Is this catharsis? Judging by “when i come back you’ll still be here” the coda of Twin Fantasy (those boys) and the record as a whole, probably not. As an outspoken champion of The Life of Pablo, which Kanye West described as “a living, breathing, changing, creative expression”, Toledo has justified his allure of revisionism into a record which buzzes with a new fidelity, rendering it with new contours of narrative beyond a teenage notebook into a disparate comment on depression, obsession, sexual identity and relationships. Fans overly concerned with linear progression may see Car Seat Headrest’s latest project as overly indulgent, yet it should be seen as Toledo sticking faithfully to his original working ethos to remain the fundamental arbiter of the content and creative direction beyond outside control. So we are rewarded. Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) is necessary to the development of Car Seat Headrest. Time has bent the memory and reproduced the soundscape into a caustic comedy on this conversation piece, and, as Toledo accurately asserts, “Art gets what it wants/and art gets what it deserves”.