These are Only Lyrics Now: An Analysis of Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy
Twin Fantasy, one of Car Seat Headrest’s most celebrated albums and a prime leader of the 2010s indie rock scene, was released four years ago this month in 2018 under Matador Records, but the initial writing and publication of this masterpiece occurred nearly a decade earlier by the lead singer in his college dorm. Though this re-recording situation is far from rare among artists, the lyricism and themes presented within the album portray such a visceral, passionate story that deems Will Toledo’s revision of it that more profound and philosophical. By revisiting his past accounts of love, heartbreak, questions of identity and purpose from an older, wiser version of himself, Toledo transforms his past detailed narratives into a piece of sophisticated reflection, made evident by the differences in lyrics between the two albums.
Twin Fantasy tells a raw story of gay love, specifically between two closeted, depressed individuals in a long-distance relationship. It should be noted that the apparent lover Will writes of in this album has transitioned to a woman; out of respect for her and to avoid confusion when dissecting the lyricism, I will refer to her as a person, character, the muse involved in our main character, Will’s fantasy. Following the linear timeline of the relationship, the songs display the sequence of their affair semi-chronologically, beginning with “My Boy - Twin Fantasy.” This opening track introduces us to the adverse physical distance between the two, repeatedly emphasizing, “my boy, we don’t see each other much…” to later, “..but somewhere down the line, we won’t be alone.” Expressing shared loneliness, this second line foreshadows a song further in the album that accounts their troubling dependency on each other, indicating the intimacy of this narrative and Toledo’s intricate writing.
A one minute acoustic song follows the second lengthy track, serving as a breath of fresh air before approaching my favorite song from the album, what I believe to be the absolute most agonizing, “Sober to Death.” Embodying their relationship so perfectly, Toledo offered not a single modification from the original, an artistic choice I gratefully praise, as each line affirms the feeling of being queer, depressed and so, so madly in love. The chorus begins with, “Take your hands off your neck and hold onto the ghost of my body…” possibly insinuating an attempt to prevent his lover from self-harming, while emphasizing his own mental torment by offering whatever is left of his ravaged self. Further in the song, this line changes, with “take my hands off your neck and hold onto the ghost of your body” replacing the “your hands” and “my body” from the primary chorus. This is a significant difference as Toledo illustrates their simultaneous battles with instability, replacing Toledo as the perpetrator and shining light on the fact that his partner is also a ghost, both so far gone from reality. Although the distance inhibits them, they remain each other’s sole source of warmth, love, and admittedly, life purpose. The chorus meets its finale with one of Car Seat Headrest’s most renowned lyrics, “we were wrecks before we crashed into each other.” I still get chills. This lyric is so self-explanatory I won’t even dive into it, but to describe their romantic unification as a crash, just so effortlessly represents their painfully flawed love affair. Before entering the world that is the next song, I must acknowledge the unforgettable outro of “Sober to Death.” Serving as a reference to the first track, “My Boy- Twin Fantasy,” this song's ending encapsulates the central thesis of the entire anthem, stating, “don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more.” These twelve words are repeated eight times, each time being more passion-driven than the last. By illustrating an unconditional commitment to his lover, Toledo stresses the consequential burden they are to one another as two teenagers who have exchanged their souls in the name of love.
Contrary to my prior dissections that focused on the updated versions of songs, for this analysis, I believe the original “Nervous Young Inhumans” provides much more insight into their arduous romance. The most significant lyric from the 2011 version, that is actually redacted from the newer one, writes, “I, like, created you as a character. I'm pretending that I know a lot more about you than I actually do…” followed by the song’s conclusion, “this is the part of the song where I start to regret writing it.” Building your artistry around a singular muse, especially in a panicked enamored state, is destined to introduce some forms of delusions and projections, hence the title “fantasy.” The muttered monologue that contains both lyrics mentioned above is replaced in the 2018 version by a completely different speech that instead meets its ending with, “isn’t this where…” These three words represent Toledo’s growth as a person since his initial writing, indicating that he no longer deplores the words he dedicated to his muse and rather, displays a sense of acceptance for his past experience of love. This song is quickly followed by an up-beat track that begins with “that’s not what I meant to say at all, I mean, I’m sick of meaning I just want to hold you,” a clear transition from the prior song’s original version where he ended on a shameful note of regret. “Bodys” is drenched in feelings of awkwardness, naivety and angst, an obvious anthem for the gay youth, with lyrics that paint a picture of the fundamental elements involved in teenage romance: nervousness and deep-rooted concern for one another. “Bodys” epitomizes stuttering affection, staring at the ground, and sweaty hand-holding, a nontraditional love song that is followed by “Cute Thing,” yet another tale of clumsy romance.
The final song off Twin Fantasy, “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)” is the absolute embodiment of the album’s decade-long rebirth. The seven minute song writes like a memoir, detailing Toledo’s acceptance of a love that no longer is, that can forever live in his memory and in his music. Before the outro, “This is the end of the song, and it is just a song. This is 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,” is spoken rather than sung, a genuine statement from the writer. The extension of himself he carefully crafted and immensely adored is a former reflection of who he is. These old songs are a personification of an intensity he no longer feels, but he acknowledges that this art can mean something entirely different from what it once did. Twin Fantasy completes with fourteen repeated expressions of, “When I come back you’ll still be here,” a feature on the original that previously came from a resentful, heartbroken artist that couldn’t escape the profound emotions he once felt for someone. Some 7 years later, Toledo sings these same lines from an appreciative perspective, one that can honor his artistry and the beautiful, painful, life-changing experiences that inspired it. These are only lyrics now.