Matador | carseatheadrest.bandcamp.com
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He sits up straight in his favourite armchair wearing his fuzziest cardigan, needles clicking as he slowly but surely knits another. The warm orange light of late afternoon shines lazily through the window. To his left steams a mug of fresh tea. To his right, his phone chirrups a reminder. Plenty of time.
That evening, a swoop of dark hair falls across his face, thick glasses shining, lips pouted in concentration as he shreds those riffs and bangs that head and such. In the dark, the crowd roars in appreciation.
Will Toledo moonlights as the nerd-chic reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. Each song from Car Seat Headrest brims with tar-black misery and misanthropy, but there’s something extra there too.
Something far more intriguing.
He’s picked a wittier number to open so as not to put off any newcomers, but before long any notion of twee indie whateverdom will be thoroughly disabused. Plenty of time.
“When I die, I’ll be taken to the constellations /
Have a drink, relax, there’ll be some introductions /
This is Cassiopeia, this is Orion /
This is Cindy, this is Nathan /
That’s Chrissy, and the other Nathan”
What were you up to in 2011? I was starring as Mr. Bumble in my high school production of Oliver, stomping around in my cool new boots, shouting a lot in my poshest crispest douchiest English accent, auctioning off orphans barely four years my junior. One of my finest roles to date, if I do say so myself, and certainly my finest hat.
Our mate Will was hunched against the frigid West Virginia winter in the back of his car, recording his taut, scratchy vocals for Twin Fantasy (the first version, at least) onto a shitty cheap laptop. Now that he’s gained a certain degree of fame and, critically, a contract with a record label, he has the resources to do justice to an album of the grimmest teenage heartbreak since the last world war.
“I know that I don’t talk a lot /
But I know that you don’t care a lot /
As long as we move our bodies around a lot /
We’ll forget that we forgot how to talk”
So here we are in the Year of Our Lord 2018, with Twin Fantasy remodelled from the ground up. The only thing unchanged is the cover art — everything old has been chucked in the bin and replaced with something better. Great hulking meaty chunks swell where once lay only narrow fillets of guitar, tinny drum applets and patches mashed and poured and smelted into robust new progeny, Will’s cold, dusty strips of vocal re-recorded in drawls and yelps and screams and ruptures in surround-sound high-fidelity so that he may finally raze and salt and scorch as his brutal music deserves, nay, requires. All these sinewy separates wind and lock and support and reinforce, muscle on bone, to form a homunculus of warm flesh and hot blood and thrashing sincerity, and man does it need a drink.
Twin Fantasy tips a generous knob of Queen into a tall, frosty pint of the Smith Street Band: a hearty, dense depression boilermaker with something of a mercurial tang around the edges. Or perhaps someone squeezed a few tart droplets of LCD Soundsystem existential dread juice into a bitter shot of Sleater-Kinney, and neglected to add the appropriate lemonade solvent.
Either way, Car Seat Headrest goes straight to the head.
“But there are lots of fish left in the sea /
There are lots of fish in business suits /
That talk and walk on human feet /
And visit doctors /
Have weak knees /
Oh, please let me join your cult /
I’ll paint my face in your colours /
You have a real nice face /
I had an early death /
The ocean washed over your grave /
The ocean washed open your grave”
Death is the impetus for LCD’s James Murphy, through the courier of its sinister Stepford stepson, obsolescence. On American Dream, anxieties frost over and burst into flames, always front and centre, always just as intense, much in the same way Melodrama paints Lorde’s fluorescent rapture at her own glorious youth, all the more beautiful for its fleetingness. She is filled with the spirit of joy, glowing little sister to life.
LCD make music about dying. Lorde makes music about living. But Will Toledo makes music about both, and as far as I can tell, everything in between.
Melodrama had me waxing lyric about captured lightning and chiaroscuro kintsugi. I found myself writing a microfictional travel guide, a bad habit of mine — providing a walkthrough of my favourite parts rather than actually analysing anything — but a sure sign I enjoyed the hell out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I stand by everything I wrote. Melodrama is still an extraordinary work of art, without competition my top album of 2017, and Lorde one of my favourite contemporary musicians, plus she was absolutely definitely robbed at the Grammys. (Bruno Mars is chill, but come on.) (I suppose she’ll have to make do with the two she already won at the age of seventeen for her first album holy dang what a star.) Murphy’s singing is flighty and loose, Lorde’s husky and deliberate, but Will Toledo’s is naturalistic, in a way that I never fail to undervalue.
“Well, so what? /
We’re young /
We’re thin, most of us /
We’re alive, most of us /
Don’t you realise our bodies could fall apart at any second? /
I am terrified your body could fall apart at any second /
Those are you got some nice shoulders / [sic]
I’d like to put my hands around them”
I sometimes forget that impressionism isn’t the only way to skin the musical cat, that more traditional styles can be every bit as rich and rewarding as restless experimentation with moonlit electroclash and sundowning synthesisers. Will unravels endless new textures and nuances from his circumscribed palette, drawing them up larger than life in literal augmented reality. His fingers scuttle up and down the fretboard of his guitar like a huge pale spider, each note sending out clean white rectangles of emphasis. Scott-Pilgrim-style sunbursts.
“Take your hands off your neck /
And hold on to the ghost of your body /
I know that good lives make bad stories /
You can text me /
When punching mattresses gets old /
What if it’ll always be this way /
Not comforted by anything you say /
We were wrecks before we crashed into each other”
We currently enjoy a renaissance of geekdom, long-overdue; long enough to settle into complacency (chart the downhill trajectory of today’s endless effusion of blockbuster comic book movies, only just beginning to swing back up) but short enough for newly minted cool kids to experience childhoods of loneliness and outcastitude, during one of which Will developed his beguiling kind of anti-charisma. “What happened to chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys?” asked he on a previous album. “What happened is I killed that fucker, and I took his name and I got new glasses.” Yikes.
Twin Fantasy pulls no punches, in subject, in presentation or indeed in style. It partitions itself with an artsy selection of monologues: a meandering on religion and the nature of evil, a student prefacing her portfolio of paintings of the personification of intensity, a biblical passage from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. And it’s to Will’s tremendous credit that none of this comes off as the least bit incredibly insufferably pretentious.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I abandoned my childhood, I put these ways behind me. For now, we see only as a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know full, even as I am fully know. And now these two remain.”
Here’s the thing.
I can’t make heads of tails of it.
This version has been out for three weeks, and I just can’t parse it. Of course there are the narrative fragments of teenage longing and abandonment (intriguingly, never quite solidifying one way or the other into real or imagined). There are the crushingly depressing anecdotes and observations regarding mundane details of meals and limbs. Yes yes suffocating banality of existence blah blah, I got that.
But when you put it together, what does it all mean? What the hell is Twin Fantasy about? And why did Will change the MS Paint brush width for just the nipples??
I feel like there’s something more to it, just beyond my reach, some thread that will tie it all together into a work of genius. But Twin Fantasy is just so dense that I can’t hold it all in my head at once to step back and shift it around and sift through and find the damn thing. Maybe that’s the point? Taken in part, or as a whole, nothing makes sense?
“I am almost completely soulless /
I am incapable of being human /
I am incapable of being inhuman”
So while I continue to miss the point, I’m stuck making endless comparisons in the hope of latching onto something. I can’t pull the pork apart.
But damn is it succulent.
Will is particularly skilled at teasing out the pleasures and limitations of the aforementioned flesh. He spends a transition from verse to chorus extemporising about the nature of the transition from verse to chorus, he spends another verse entirely vaunting his allegedly superlative cursive, he interrupts the volcanic climax of a latter-album highlight with sweet little boy-band ‘doo-doo’s, then resumes the eruption as if nothing ever happened, and eulogises someone who “died in an explosion of mixed media and poorly-written review” who may be a boyfriend or another lover or maybe is himself?
“I got so fucking romantic /
I apologise /
Let me light your cigarette /
Come visit Kansas for a week of debauchery /
Songs and high-fives and weird sex /
Cute thing, don’t be a rude thing /
Hot thing, it was nothing”
Speaking of endless comparison, how about another one? Despite the colossal gulf between their styles, Will Toledo reminds me distinctly of Joanna Newsom’s intimidatingly literary freak-folk whereon she and her harp chart winding journeys through fable and fiction. I feel like in order to fully appreciate their art I have to set aside an entire afternoon, plonk myself down in the corner of a library with soft dogeared dictionary, a fat hardback encyclopedia, a slide rule, a sextant and an embarrassingly large thermos of fresh black coffee. They each make such extensive use of intratextual hyperlinks — a quotation from one song may reappear recontextualised in another, a chorus repurposed into a bridge, a bridge cropped into several verses, a memory from a previous album brought back to serve a newer purpose. They curl in on themselves, Klein bottles cast in oak and catgut. There are far too many knots to unravel in one sitting. But I do relish the challenge.
(I’ve got Joanna pencilled in for a future article. Maybe that will be my birthday treat to myself. Check back in mid-September to see if I’ve forgotten.)
(Update: I did not!)
But where Joanna’s worlds bristle with strange and fantastical lives, Will writes of spectres and ghosts, has-beens and if-onlys. The only real characters seem to be the author himself, and the listener, whom he addresses in the second person in the closing monologue of Twin Fantasy. He unexpectedly reaches right through the fourth wall in an act that is almost transgressively intimate, to boop you on the nose, then sucker-punch you in the stomach.
Like check if I’m decent first. Christ.
I slouch on my unmade bed wearing my fuzziest socks, headphones turned up as loud as possible without exacerbating my throbbing caffeine headache. To my left steams a mug of fresh tea. To my right, my phone ticks over to twenty-three. Plenty of time.
I press a pad of paper against a clipboard balanced on my knees. I wrap my sheets around my feet for extra warmth. I scrawl down whatever passes through my mind.
I don’t see the wall opposite me, my snuggly rugged toes or the pen grasped in my fingers. Through the suffocating darkness of the lyrics, the music blazes bright enough to outshine even the emoest of sentiments. It makes me want to pull on my cosiest knitwear, throw up those horns and rock the fuck out. Which, I suppose, matters more at the end of the day than understanding why. Plenty of time.
“This is the end of the song, and it is just a song. It’s a version of me and you that can exist outside of everything else, and if it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen from here. The contract is up. The names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now.
When I come back, you’ll still be here.
When you come back, I’ll still be here.”