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‘Car Seat Headrest’ delivers a replacement that is not as authentic as original

By Carl Warmuth

Section: Arts

March 2, 2018

In 2011, William & Mary sophomore Will Toledo poured all he had into his sixth Band Camp concept album called “Car Seat Headrest.” Layering both soft and shrieking vocals over his own guitar, bass and drum rhythms, he dosed the indie scene with the rawness it sought. Drawing loads of online acclaim, “Twin Fantasy” propelled Toledo into assembling a four-piece band, signing a record deal with big name indie label Matador and knocking out a national tour. Despite this, his earlier online release remained the fan favorite.

Last year, Toledo decided to return to “Twin Fantasy,” replacing the purportedly ancient laptop he had used back when he was just 19 with studio musicians and meticulous mixing. Saying “it was never a finished work” in 2017 when the plan to rerelease the album was announced, the goal for Toledo seemed pretty simple: take advantage of his new resources and polish his best work. It proved way more ambitious, though, as the lengthy project comprised everything from melodic tweaks to total overhauls.

Toledo’s replacement of the echo-like drum synth on opening track, “My Boy” with a stripped down, plain synth that swiftly distinguishes “Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror),” as the original is retrospectively called, “Twin Fantasy (Face to Face).” Further, Toledo trades heavy vocal distortion for clean vocals, emphasizing from the get-go that it is a refined work. Of course, that does not mean it is without its silliness. In fact, a big part of the acclaim for “Car Seat Headrest” comes from it treating every note, verse and title with a little levity. For instance, when 13 minute album highlight “Beach Life-And-Death” comes on, the listener is met with a false start in which Toledo slurps something and fumbles the first word.

Even with these and various other changes, the mostly untouched lyrics remain the neatest part. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them are about what it is like to be a confused college kid. While maybe banal at a glance, what can safely be called “informed informality” he broaches it, which could make anyone return to their good ol’ dorm days. Lines like “A book of Aubrey Beardsley art corrupted me in youth,” thrown in as a playful jab at hipsters, are put next to “now I’m trapped inside my youth, and you’re in love with last-stage youth.” As you can see, the tone switches from very comic to very personal in a flash, just like many folks approaching 20. Further, themes of sexuality, loneliness and drug abuse hit popular subjects of the age. The latter two, though, are mainly used as lenses for the first, as every song has a speaker, presumably Toledo himself, talking to a male friend he thinks he may admire. On “Stop Smoking (We Love You)”, for instance, he begs this friend to put down cigs, repeating “stop smoking, we love you, and we don’t want you to die” over and over. This song and pretty much everything that is at one point declared in the album is later questioned. On the later “High to Death,” Toledo dejectedly sings, “keep smoking, I still love you.” Additionally, this song title is a play on the earlier “Sober to Death,” showing how much Toledo is willing to flip flop in regards to his friend.

In order to pick a favorite, one must go back to the instrumentation. While the new album is without doubt better crafted, its creation fails to spot that a big reason Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) got so much attention to begin with was its rawness. The idea of Toledo having to labor away all by himself, and further, to obtain a top tier product out of doing so, is too tough to top. After all, wanting to make something that packs a punch and compensating for inexperience with heart is not just what Toledo’s mentality is, but also his lyrical core. While the new album has its charms, a collegiate process makes for a collegiate record, which is the very essence of “Twin Fantasy.” If you have time, give it a shot.

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