Twinning Fantastically: Will Toledo Gambles on LP3
In a rock-n-roll landscape that has always been partially defined by what is “cool” and what isn’t - the meaning of “cool” being a constantly-shifting configuration of metrics that can change over years or in mere moments - rarely has an album shown itself to be such a culturally savvy move.
Last week saw the release of Car Seat Headrest’s latest LP, Twin Fantasy, on Matador Records. It is the third album for the label by the band, a band creatively masterminded by one Will Toledo, who had himself written and recorded eleven albums and posted them on Bandcamp before he ever signed a recording contract. CSH’s rise to prominence was built on the sweaty shoulders and social media pages of scenesters who had heard the music “before it was cool”, that most indelible of indie fanhood badges, and the artist’s reputation percolated up through the ether until a record deal seemed to be at least somewhat a foregone conclusion. At the time, the act had only recently morphed from a one-man outfit to a more typical full-band setup. Teens of Style was culled from Bandcamp as the debut and it soon found its way out into the world under the patronage of the Matador distro apparatus. Teens of Denial followed half a year later, mad-libbing and drunk-driving and gyrating its twitchy way to near-universal acclaim.
So, after having successfully danced around the issue of a proper “debut” release by cherry picking from the prototypes of work that was already recorded (and in some small circles, well-known) and deftly avoiding the stigmatic sophomore slump with a release that in some ways amounted to a “true” debut, what is a boy to do for a third release?
Third albums can be tricky things. The audience feels invested by this point, and their desires don’t necessarily have to be met, but it feels like they should be at least acknowledged in some way. An album that adheres too closely to established aesthetic guidelines might be seen as hewing too closely to safe waters, an artist unwilling to challenge themselves. To go the other route, into entirely unfamiliar sonic and/or songwriting territory, might be seen as too alienating to longtime listeners – many bands have fizzled after not being able to successfully barrelroll through this asteroid field.
And this is where things get interesting. Twin Fantasy represents something of a considered risk on the part of Car Seat Headrest, and (spoiler alert) it is one that appears to have paid off handsomely. Instead of staying the course or trekking into the breach, Toledo has imagineered a whole other path: re-recording an album previously only available on his Bandcamp site. This maneuver is virtually unprecedented in the world of indie rock (to this writer’s knowledge). It isn’t necessarily news when bands re-record or re-interpret individual songs, or remix and remaster any or all of their entire body of work, but it is unheard-of for them to re-record an entire album.
The risk of Twin Fantasy: Part Deux is that the overly-critical in the music community might see it as a “retreat” in some way, a re-snatching of the proverbial “security blanket” of old material. It would be possible to argue that retreading old ground can be fun, even can be revelatory in the right circumstances, but that it doesn’t equal a step forward for an artist, as a rule. Given the grassroots nature of CSH’s early success, this is actually a situation that wouldn’t have even been plausible until relatively recently (cue the "what-a-time-to-be-alive" joke). Before advances in home recording, bands wouldn’t have ever been sitting on significant amounts of material that hadn’t been traditionally released – their recording deals would have been contingent upon release of the music and the resulting recoup of the label’s investment. Likewise, if a band had sat on lots of material before getting a deal, it wouldn’t have been widely disseminated before then – distribution of their work would have needed the blessing and resources of a record label.
But here and now in the Year of the Dog 2018, Toledo gets to play both sides of the field. He knows from all the time spent cultivating a presence online that his longtime fans regard Twin Fantasy as a masterpiece, so there’s no danger of disappointing them: they get a record that they generally already love, but they get a brand new rendering of it along with a new higher standard of recording quality. He also gets to take advantage of the likelihood that many fans who have come on-board since Style and/or Denial have probably not taken the time to go back to Bandcamp and listen to his copious amounts of past work: those fans get a record that gives them all the things they want from Car Seat Headrest and then some, and it sounds like nothing but a satisfying new jam. The added benefit is that no one feels slighted in the least due to the album being something that existed before – seasoned fans get to enjoy it’s new incarnation and say that they “knew it way back when”; newer fans get to just enjoy it for what it is. Going back to the source material, which actually is included as a separate disc on the CD release, will be interesting for some listeners as a point of comparison, but it’s not required reading for anyone.
It’s not reasonable to assume that any of the above was the motivation for the idea to follow this course, and that isn't the suggestion at all. But it bears pointing out that Will Toledo looks like a genius for this move. Who would throw cold water on an artist’s desire to meaningfully revisit older material, especially when it’s under the pretense of making the work better, and making it more widely available to a mass audience? The fact that he gets to bypass the nervous jitters of a potentially daunting album cycle and the pratfalls of writing and recording risky new material is a happy by-product of achieving the fulfillment of bringing songs that he clearly has great affinity for to a much wider sphere of import.
Keen-eyed readers will note that no thoughts have been given herein about the quality of Twin Fantasy as an album. There’s no shortage of reviews online – you can see one here, or here, or here….oh, there’s another one. You don't need me to tell you it's good, but just so there's no ambiguity: for me, the album is emotionally wringing, cerebrally complex, viscerally moving – it is long but it earns every minute, it is difficult in the way that it’s always difficult to see the world from inside someone else’s head, and it all adds up to a very uplifting whole.
The best thing I can think of to say about it, and perhaps one of the highest compliments to proffer given the mercurial nature of the descriptor, is that’s it’s pretty fuckin cool.