On heartbreak, loneliness, fantasies & how much things can change in a year, through the lens of one of my all-time favourite albums.
In a little over two weeks I’m headed out to watch Car Seat Headrest live. By the time I watch them, in late May, it will have been about a year since Effie first told me to listen to them. When she first told me about them, I had only listened to them in the background as I was packing up my room to move out. At this time, only the 2011 version of Twin Fantasy was released–neither of us had known that it would be reworked, re-recorded and re-released earlier this year. It was summer 2017 and this album had been released about six years ago, at which time “Car Seat Headrest” still consisted solely of Will Toledo doing all the vocals, instruments and editing. The sound was lo-fi, his voice has never been the clearest, I was distracted, and I only heard snatches of lyrics in the album. At one point, I heard him screaming, “I DON’T WANT TO GO INSANE! I DON’T WANT TO HAVE…. SCHIZOPHRENIA” and I was surprised when I checked my phone to see what song it was that it had already been going on for over four minutes and was due to go on for at least another eight. It was “Beach Life-in-Death”, at that time the longest song in the album, clocking in at about 12 minutes. Eventually the album ran out, I still hadn’t finished packing, and I just shot off a text to Effie saying something non-committal like, I like when they sing about going crazy.
I forgot it for a while. I don’t know when it was that I actually properly listened to it—I don’t remember ever listening to it again at the time, so I think it must have been when I came home for good. Looking through my search history on YouTube, apparently I searched for “High to Death” five months ago—around November or October, so maybe that was when. I think that must also have been after the time when the band had taken the entirety of Twin Fantasy (2011) off Spotify, because I wouldn’t have resorted to YouTube otherwise. I remember being in the McDonald’s and having a piece of lyric stuck in my head from, not that song, but “Sober to Death”, and trying to figure out where it came from. It was the lyric, you know that good lives make bad stories. I don’t know why I had remembered that particular line, or what it had meant to me then, and maybe I’m happy that I don’t remember. And from then, I must have searched for “High to Death”. I think those two, along with “Famous Prophets (Minds)” (now “Famous Prophets (Stars)”), must have been my favourite CSH songs at the time, I think I must have listened exclusively to those three when I wanted to listen to CSH, because they’re the only ones that come up in my YouTube search history. In the 2018 version of Twin Fantasy, “Famous Prophets” triumphed over “Beach Life-in-Death” for longest song in the album, coming up to almost 17 minutes.
There aren’t a lot of bands or artists I keep up with from single to single anymore. Even with the ones I love, I usually wait until the full announced album comes out. But I know the value in listening to singles before the album: when you only have the single, your attention is directed only at that one song. Unlike listening to an album, you’re not trying to figure out multiple songs at once. You appreciate the one song, you can just listen to that song, over & over & over again. And when your only recourse to listening to a song is YouTube, you appreciate it twice as much, if only for the main reason that you can’t click over to other apps while listening to YouTube on your phone.1 Listening to Twin Fantasy on YouTube felt like the 2011 album feels now, once you’ve listened to the 2018 version: just… a thing of the past, I guess. When the band took it off Spotify, it was like they were saying, If you want to listen to an album from the past you’re going to have to do it like how you used to back in 2011, back when you were 15 & before you knew what Spotify was: you just have to listen to it on Youtube.
Then CSH re-released “Beach Life-in-Death” as a single in December 2017. Then there came the “Nervous Young Inhumans” music video in the new year. Their record label, Matador, announced a re-release of Twin Fantasy. Then there was “Cute Thing” and, finally, “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)”, before the album was finally released in February 2018. The original Twin Fantasy was recorded on a laptop when Toledo was 19, and uploaded onto Bandcamp for his friends to listen to. He is alone. In the 2018 re-release, he has a band with him. The differences are obvious when you listen to both albums: compare, for example, the 2011 version of the album’s most energetic song “Bodys”, with its 2018 version. It sounds like music coming from a shitty speaker in another room. It sounds like those announcements in malls when they need someone to move their car. And I guess this is what Twin Fantasy (2011) becomes in the light of Twin Fantasy (2018): music from another room: contained within its dimensions: the door closed.
So what the fuck is Twin Fantasy and why the fuck haven’t I shut up since December 2017 then? Twin Fantasy, at least the 2011 version, is just someone bleeding all over the place, which is what I am into. At the time when I was in a McDonald’s searching for “Sober to Death” I was trying to get over a boy. By the time February came around, I was still trying to get over a boy. There were other changes in my life that I was trying to accept as well, such as the fact that I was at my first full-time job and I didn’t really have any friends around anymore. Twin Fantasy didn’t help me get over anything, but it took my breath away with the artistic possibilities it displayed for turning whatever you’ve been going around bleeding into something productive, something poetic, something more than this.
Twin Fantasy is about love, obsession, heartbreak, melancholia and fantasy, which are all maybe just different words for the same thing. I’m not a musical person (in case it wasn’t obvious by this point): I don’t know anything about instruments or music theory or literally anything, and so it’s difficult for me to evaluate music as an art form; and so, as a literature student, it always ends up that lyrics are the strongest pull of a song to me.
Will Toledo’s lyrics remind me of John Darnielle and Frank Ocean in their poeticism, Darnielle and Ocean being two other songwriters renowned for their lyrical skills. But mostly they remind me of Richard Siken in their themes and sense of impending doom. Toledo has never heard of Siken, but the tonal and thematic similarities would be, I think, striking to anyone who’s heard of both2. For the sake of remaining focused on the creativity of Will Toledo and evaluating Twin Fantasy on its own merit, and also for the sake of anyone else reading this who’s never heard of Siken, or even listened to Car Seat Headrest, or both, I’ll try to keep this segment on the Siken/TF similarities short.3Anyone can write about heartbreak and melancholia and not remind me of Twin Fantasy, but it’s the particularly tragic way that Siken writes about (a) doomed relationship(s) that made me think about him while listening to Twin Fantasy. Both Siken and Toledo are writing from a position after the end of love: the worst thing that could happen has happened, and then it turns out that its aftermath is the real Worst Thing. They are both lovers without a loved one, incapable of moving on and replaying the same now-limited set of memories in their minds, over and over again.
A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river / but then he’s still left / with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away / but then he’s still left with his hands.
(Richard Siken, “Boot Theory”)
It’s about the particular way that both struggle at what to do with the bleeding heart they’ve been left with, with their “solutions” at times taking a violent turn.
“Beach Life-in-Death” and “Famous Prophets” even read like epic poems.4 Both songs are the working through of complex feelings, and they both fight against what they put forward. Consider the following lines from “Beach Life-in-Death”, and “Famous Prophets”:
Get more groceries / get eaten / get more groceries / get eaten / by the one you love … Last night I dreamed he was trying to kill you / I woke up and I was trying to kill you (Beach Life-in-Death)
Apologies to future me’s and you’s / But I can’t help feeling like we’re through / The ripping of the tape hurts my ears / In my years, I’ve never seen anyone quit quite like you do / Twin bruises on my shin / from where I kicked the back of the seat in / They meant / what I went through for you / But now they’re fading / Now they’re gone (Famous Prophets)
Then consider the following lines from Richard Siken:
Inside your head the sound of glass, / a car crash sound as the trucks roll over and explode in slow motion. / Hello darling, sorry about that. / Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell / and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud. (Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out)
I stare at you like I’m looking through a window, / counting birds. / You wanted happiness, I can’t blame you for that, / and maybe a mouth sounds idiotic when it blathers on about joy / but tell me / you love this, tell me you’re not miserable. / You do the math, you expect the trouble. / The seaside town. The electric fence. (Seaside Improvisation)
The tragedy is that all of these things are being said to us, us the listener and the reader, because we both know that there’s no going back to deliver these words to the ones they were really meant for. That’s how heartbreak feels, I guess. It feels like your heart in between the teeth of someone who’s looking away. When you’ve lost your loved object, what happens to all the things you have to say to them? When they’re turned away, what happens to all the things that you couldn’t, but desperately need(ed) to, say to their face? He dissociates himself from his own romance until it becomes a fantasy. You have your bleeding heart, you have a finite set of memories — when nothing new enters and you’re unwilling to let go, then you have a fantasy. The loved object enters into you and transforms. Replay the same scenes over & over again until they’re no longer what they were in their reality. To remember is an active practice, not a passive one: your current feelings inevitably affect the way you remember past events (and, indeed, which events you remember at all), and our past is always burdened with new meanings that perhaps did not exist in the moment at the time. This is, I think, what gives both works their violent streaks, why Siken (or his protagonist) needs to “throw” his sadness into the river, why Toledo woke up trying to kill you.5 It’s unbearable. For so long you thought they had your heart between their teeth but look at what you’ve done to them. If the one you loved lives inside you, and there’s a train hurtling towards the both of you and you have control of the lever, then which one do you kill: them, or yourself?6Both Toledo and Siken offer apologies in their own way for the attempted murder. (Hello darling, sorry about that.) In “Beach Life-in-Death”, Toledo immediately changes the subject to a brief, happier memory: Your ears perked up – I perked up when your ears perked up. In the original “Famous Prophets”, there’s a grave, and there’s Will standing at the top of the mountain where God isn’t, screaming, Why did you tell me to come in the first place? Why did you? Why did you? Why why why?
The 2018 version of “Famous Prophets” offers a more matured resolution. There’s still the accusation over the dead beloved, as Will asks, What happened to you? It’s a single, sharp, searching question; then, silence; and then, a stranger’s voice reading out 1 Corinthians 13: 8–13.7 The change in “Famous Prophets”’ lyrics (and length!) are only one of the many ways that Twin Fantasy has matured over the years, as Toledo (or whoever, the narrator) takes a step back from the situation, clears his head, and becomes able to look at it and understand it on its own terms, rather than his. When Twin Fantasy (2018) was released, it was given the subtitle Face to Face, while the original 2011 Twin Fantasy became Twin Fantasy: Mirror to Mirror. Imagine two mirrors facing each other, imagine the dizzying number of selves that stretch back to infinity when a subject is placed in between. In Face to Face, Toledo breaks the mirrors, breaks the prison of infinite selves, and tries to look at the face behind the fantasy.
He is finally able, in a way, to “see” his boy again. Vision, especially clear vision, is crucial to the breaking of the fantasy. Twin Fantasy opens up with “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)”, which, lyrically, is just a repeated refrain of My boy, we don’t see each other much, but somewhere down the line we won’t be alone.
The album closes with “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)”, which in turn consists mostly of the repeated refrain, I haven’t looked at the sun for so long, I’d forgotten how much it hurt to. In between, there is the rambling “Beach Life-in-Death”, then a return to simple repetition with “Stop Smoking”, then (the song that started it all, for me) “Sober to Death”, “Nervous Young Inhumans”, “Bodys”, “Cute Thing”, “High to Death” and the last song before the last song, the parting of the clouds before you step out into the sun, “Famous Prophets”.
When the album hits its middle and launches into “Bodys”, so reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, god, I just start to miss everyone. In an interview with Peyton Thomas, Toledo described “Bodys” as “manic … the point where the fantasy gets too real.” To me, “Bodys” feels like a break from that fantasy, a breath of fresh air where everyone manages, finally, to say what they mean. (Siken: We were in the gold room where everyone finally gets what they want.) “Beach” is not a happy song: there is a murder, or at least an attempt at one. “Beach” is trying to shake off something that has its teeth in you. “Stop Smoking” is just… well, if you’re smoking so much that someone’s telling you to stop smoking, they love you, then what does that mean? And “Sober to Death” is just depressing. “Sober to Death” is the full indulgence of the fantasy. I want to hear you going psycho, if you’re going psycho then I wanna hear. It makes me happy that I don’t remember why I had remembered the line you know that good lives make bad stories all those months ago. So when “Bodys” comes around, is its fantasy of liberation just another fantasy? I think it’s a microcosm of what the greater project of Twin Fantasy means, to me, as an offer of liberation through art. The heartbreak is the heartbreak is the heartbreak. It is what it is. But at least to be able to create something with it, at least to be able to turn it into something productive. Maybe there can be some good fantasies, and maybe “Bodys”’s fantasy of finally being able to say what you mean, of being in a room full of bodies and feeling nothing except love, is what allows the album’s denouement into a resolution.
So what? So what? … Don’t you realize our bodies could fall apart at any second?
“Cute Thing” opens up with an apology: I got so fucking romantic, I apologise. Let me light your cigarette. “Cute Thing” is “Bodys”’s comedown, when you’re trying to find him again in the smoking area and trying to remind yourself that you have to be a normal person that says normal, socially acceptable things now. The reapplication of the mask. It’s full of embarrassment and the things that can’t be said again. It’s lurid in the things it imagines (Come visit Kansas for a week of debauchery / Songs and high fives and weird sex) and desperate in its inability to make the first move. Oh God give me Frank Ocean’s voice / give me one little chance. It’s a song tripping over itself. I accidentally spoke his first name aloud. But the song finally gets to what it all means, what he’s been trying to say, but can’t, or does say, but not in a way you’d understand, this entire time: I am love / I want to sleep naked, next to you, naked / I am love (2018 vers).
It’s towards the end of the 2018 version of “High to Death” that we get a suggestion of what the entire project of Twin Fantasys means and why it matters for Toledo to revisit it six years later. “High to Death” closes with a sound bite from Hojin Jung, an artist who designed the covers for the 2018 “Beach” and “Nervous Young Inhumans” singles. She expresses her conflict over a series of paintings she made “last summer” for her high school portfolio, how the woman portrayed in them was someone she knew before, but someone whom she doesn’t quite recognise anymore. She says, euphemistically, that she “wasn’t well” when she made the paintings, and it hurts to look back at them now. The key point, for me, is that she still loves the Lady, that she “believed” in her. And I think that’s where the 2018 revision of Twin Fantasy comes from, from a recognition that Toledo was in a bad place when he wrote the original album, and perhaps said things that he didn’t mean or otherwise now regrets saying, but he still loves the person who lived through and created it. Earlier in this post, I said that Twin Fantasy didn’t help me get over anything but rather suggested to me another possibility for living. But perhaps… this is the same thing. The way to move on from something is to go back to the thing, but not with hatred or regret or nostalgia: just with love. Quite simply, as any fucking therapist or advice column or random person on the street would say, to talk about it. To sublimate. Finally, at the end of “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)”, there’s another little monologue from Toledo, who says, “The contract is up, the names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now.”
When you love something so much, when you revisit something as often as I do Twin Fantasy, everything about it eventually acquires a significance. Lyrics that previously hadn’t mattered to me now do. Some lines I sing to myself if only for the familiarity of the rhythm. So I drove to Harper’s Ferry and I thought about you there were signs on the road that warned me of stop signs the speed limit kept decreasing by ten as we headed to town about halfway there. I have no idea what these lyrics mean, no idea where Harper’s Ferry is, but the rhythm of “Beach” is so embedded in me because of how much I’ve listened to it. A year ago I checked my phone because my ears perked up at him screaming about going insane, then when he re-released the single I listened to it because I loved the way he described his mania, then I listened to it just because I loved it, now I listen to it because I know it. When I was younger, one of my favourite authors was a man named John Green, and if you’re familiar with his work then maybe you’ll understand why one of my earliest favourite poems was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, which had a first line that I would sometimes recite in my head when I felt like I needed to distract myself to calm down. Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. It’s normal for you to memorize the things that you love, but there are few things that I’ve loved so much that the rhythm of their existence enters mine.
On a deeper level, beyond just the rhythm & familiarity of the songs, Twin Fantasy has been an entry for me to expressing my own feelings of heartbreak and loneliness. (I accidentally spoke his first name aloud, to try and make it fit in with the lyrics of Twin Fantasy.) You know, I, like, relate. And I’m not stupid: I know about the dangers of getting too invested in a single thing, especially one dealing with such self-indulgent feelings like melancholia and heartbreak. It’s OK to relate to something as long as you don’t define yourself by it etc., etc. This is what makes Twin Fantasy so unique to me, in how it expresses emotions with a complexity and poetry that I’m hard pressed to find in a lot of other stuff I’ve listened to. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but at the time when I first started listening to Twin Fantasy properly, I was consuming a lot of rap and, particularly, trap music. Like, a lot of it. Like, I had a playlist of trap music that I literally just shuffled and listened to every day. In a previous post from when I first came back, I wrote that ‘I can’t stand to listen to anything except the trashiest music these days, where every other word is a swear or a slur, and every line is either about fucking bitches, making money, some high couture brand, or all the above. I can’t listen to “good” rap either.’ (15 aug 17) You know, this is the kind of musical life I had. I couldn’t stand listening to anything that I had to pay attention to and attempt to decipher. Everything just felt so dead to me, dead of meaning, dead of pleasure; even with “good” music I felt that it was all just secretly garbage, and so I preferred to just listen to the stuff that was already explicitly garbage. It seems so hilariously, pathetically banal, to say that trap music was just a distraction for me from the life I was leading & from all the fresh uncertainties that I didn’t know yet how to make sense of.
Then something happened that made me as repulsed with trap music as I had previously been repulsed with anything that wasn’t trap music. I don’t want to say, it was just something that really drove home to me that the people who sing about all this bad stuff really are, (surprise), bad people.8 Good stories are bad lives. Ha ha ha ha ha. It makes me so happy to remember rediscovering Twin Fantasy and immersing myself in it: I literally… quite literally, could not stop talking about it. It makes me so happy to remember something meaning so much to me, and not in the dependent way that trap music meant to me, but in the way that a guide means for the progress of any story. It’s just something that came into my life, and now my life was changed because of it, not because I shaped my life according to the album, but because the album showed me a different way of relating to works of art. I remember literally talking about it all the time on twitter and Instagram, and then explaining to friends about the format of it, so often that I had a pre-written message already saved on my phone so I wouldn’t have to go through the whole process of explaining it all over again to someone else. And I remember people responding saying, “cool I’ll check it out!” And just finding it … so … funny, because my intention in talking about it all the time had never been to promote it. If other people were influenced to listen to it because of me, then I was happy also, but I only talked about it so much to everyone because I literally thought about it, all the time. And I’m still thinking about it now, maybe not as much as I used to, but I still remembered my personal almost-anniversary with it. If I’d wanted to get other people to listen to it, I’d have just written a strict review. But now, this whole thing, what I’m mainly writing about is me. (Most of the time when I use the word ‘you’, well you know that I’m mostly singing about you.) And of course still a messy, disparate person, of course still so many memories that I don’t know what to do with, of course still so fucking romantic, of course still lonely, almost all the time. But it’s been almost a year now. I just wanted to raise a fucking glass to that.
1. Hahaha. Growing up with the Internet shot my attention span, and my appreciation of something — to purely love a piece of culture — is always conditioned by the limitations of something as stupid as this. Yes yup. It makes me a little sick to have to admit something so banal when talking about songs, lyrics, albums – a piece of art – that I love so much.
2. For the sake of – I don’t know, academic integrity? I should insert here that the only proof I have of this, that their tonal and thematic similarities are striking blah blah, comes to a net total of two. I have only the Peyton Thomas interview and a brief conversation (if a 3-tweet response thread on Twitter can be considered a conversation) with Effie who also saw this. Maybe the similarities wouldn’t be striking – maybe they’re not similar at all – maybe they would be offended to be compared to each other. I don’t know. These are just the words that build up my life.
3. It feels so hypocritical to say all that and still launch into the segment anyway. Like, yes I know I should be just assessing TF on its own merit and yes I know that people’s attentions spans are short especially when reading something they’ve no idea about but I’m going to do it anyway. And then this self-referential footnote like I’m acknowledging my hypocrisy and maybe by acknowledging it you’ll accept the apology I didn’t even give. But indulge me. This is my blog. And the footnotes? Well, how can you talk about Twin Fantasy without at least a little mumbling? If you listen to it you’ll understand what I mean.
4. Did you hear what I said earlier? 12 and 10 minutes respectively! In the 2018 version they’re fleshed out to become, respectively, respectfully, 13 and 16 minutes long.
5. It should be noted here, however, that I think this is a major way in which Crush and Twin Fantasy differentiate: the poems in Crush, I believe, often portray a physically violent and abusive relationship. I don’t know Toledo personally, and I don’t care about speculations of his real life relationships, but I don’t think the lyrics of Twin Fantasy are trying portray anything literally violent that happened. But I obviously don’t know. I just mean that I don’t want to minimize the violence of Crush by putting them on the same metaphorical level as the violence in Twin Fantasy. Twin Fantasy is, at least on surface level (again — I don’t think it’s productive to speculate about Toledo’s personal life), about heartbreak; Crush is about abuse (among other things. You know. I was trying to keep this short).
6. And if the leve(r) breaks, you’ll find out what it is that’s replacing you.
8. As morbid and cryptic as I’m making this sound, it wasn’t anything terrible that happened to me or anyone I know personally.