Car Seat Headrest & The Art Of The Remake

“I’ma fix Wolves” – Kanye West, 2016

THERE’S no format more revered and deified than the album. It’s been long considered sacrosanct, and for a reason too. Through vinyl to CDs to mp3s, the LP has long been immovable in the face of time.

However, the rise of streaming has offered – among many other things –questions about the impermanence of all digital music, including the album itself. Could artists re-record older material, now that circulation wasn’t an issue?

Or could they use this landscape to continuously update already-released music and change the life-cycle of their own record? (See Kanye West and his infamous “I’ma fix Wolves” tweet, which kickstarted a seemingly endless amount of edits on 2016 album The Life Of Pablo.)

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Which brings us Car Seat Headrest, whose frontman Will Toledo extolled Kanye and The Life Of Pablo in a 1500-word think-piece published on Talkhouse in 2016. “There will always be more sin to get into after church,” wrote Will of Kanye’s decision to “canonise” six additional tracks post-release.

While Kanye tooled with recent history, Will and Car Seat Headrest have delved much further back in the past, utilising both a live band and a proper studio setup to remake their 2011 album Twin Fantasy.

The album is far and away the most well-loved collection of songs in Will’s sizeable discography, which begs the question: Why has he attempted to recreate it in the first place?

Back To The Bedroom

A FASCINATING exercise in songwriting ambition outstripping production values, the original Twin Fantasy is an hour-long, bedroom-indie epic. It has tinny, occasionally unintelligible vocals, and booming drums that causes the mix to frequently peak.

The home-spun, idiosyncratic aesthetic and anti-production calls to mind Daniel Johnston more than any of the Malkmus-ian forebearers the band’s oeuvre is frequently compared to.

But it’s clear listening to Twin Fantasy (2018) that the album’s many complexities have benefitted from not just the better production, but Will’s growing skill as an arranger. The keys on ‘Cute Thing’ shimmer with the glow of newfound infatuation, while ‘Bodys’ expands from the brittle song sketch of the original to a striking, elaborate arrangement that feels both imposing and intimate.

Will himself seems invigorated by the possibilities the new band and studio offers – he’s no longer confined to the imposing minimalism of bedroom recording.

Whereas the scuzzy, misshapen guitars gave the album in its original form a perfect distillation of Will’s angst, here they clatter and roar like an approximated, bastardised form of college radio rock. (I’m fairly sure there’s more guitar tracks on the re-recorded ‘Beach Life In-Death’ than on the entire first version of the record.)

As such, Twin Fantasy (2018) often feels like both a stop-gap and a step-forward for Car Seat Headrest; the irony of Will doing this with a collection of songs he wrote six years ago as a 19-year-old notwithstanding.

Revisionist History

Will has also updated his lyric sheet as well, similarly making alterations and constantly up-ending his own voice in a variety of different ways. He breaks the fourth-wall in ‘Beach Life In Death’ by re-writing his own words and contradicting himself (“I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends/I never came out to my friends”) and meta-contextualises his own songwriting tricks in ‘Bodys’ (“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”).

Meanwhile, there’s also been a sanding down of the album’s more out-there inflections, with entire sections changed and re-written, such as the infamous ‘Frankenstein’ monologue that bookends ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’. While there’s still no linear narrative to the listener, the album’s loose character sketches and soliloquies only benefit from this further sense of clarity the re-recorded album brings.

 

Twin Fantasy (2018) certainly isn’t a “meet cute” either. It’s less “boy meets boy” and more “boy agonises over first queer romantic relationship with nameless object of affection”.

As liberating as it is to hear this within the painfully heterosexual spectrum of indie rock, it’s also important to note that the subject of this tortured, inconsolable collection of songs is never treated as a proper character in his own right.

Part of the original’s charm was in the constant tape hiss and raw, roughshod urgency.

He is only referred to as “you”, afforded no agency in this rendering, which remains Will’s own selective depiction of what happened (and what didn’t happen) in their relationship.

The constant re-writing of lyrics and references to past Car Seat Headrest works on Twin Fantasy (2018) feels like Will selectively editing his own history, an apt metaphor for this entire re-recording project.

Album centrepiece ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ begins with “Apologies to futures mes and yous”, and it’s difficult to work out whether he’s speaking to the much-fetishised object of his desires or the listener directly.

A Worthy Rework?

It’s difficult to say whether Twin Fantasy’s oft-overwhelming insularity has been amplified or dulled by the 2018 redux. Hearing Will’s teenage dreams painted in more vivid colours than his laptop could ever afford him is undeniably a thrill.

But part of the original’s charm was in the constant tape hiss and raw, roughshod urgency; a perfectly imperfect portrait of the artist as a 19-year-old, grappling with his sexuality and intense feelings of lust for the first time.

A living, fluid organism, to constantly be tinkered with and re-recorded long after release.

Twin Fantasy (2018) sacrifices this immediate catharsis by tempering down the emotional purgation for a more considered, measured approach to the songs. It’s an approach that’ll no doubt placate new Car Seat Headrest fans but may leave long-time followers wanting a more lo-fi form of gratification within the band’s back catalogue.

It’s no surprise that Will has expressed himself as a fan of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo LP in the past. And you can see a similar level of thinking within this project: the album as a living, fluid organism, to constantly be tinkered with and re-recorded long after release, with no conceivable end date.

Something Else