I wasn’t aware of Car Seat Headrest until Teens of Denial, which quickly earned its spot as one of the best albums of the decade that I’ve heard. The short version of that long review: I found an album full of honest observations, a warm voice and rousing climaxes. Naturally, people asked me what I thought of Twin Fantasy, and I quickly found out that bigger Car Seat Headrest fans than me – the ones who were fans before he signed onto a sizable label – heralded that album as a masterpiece. I liked Twin Fantasy enough, and there’s a single word that’s seemingly ubiquitous in all the literature surrounding that album: passion. No denying that: the fucking thing is a pseudo-song-cycle detailing a nervous, young (in)human as he wrestles with his feelings towards another person that basically starts and ends with epics like an indie take on prog rock. In trying to understand where the vocal few who thought it was his magnum opus – I toyed briefly with the idea that I might’ve liked it more had I heard it before Teens of Denial – I first blamed the production, citing that the low quality was hampering the inherent warmth of Will Toledo’s voice. More than a year later of listening and re-listening, this is the conclusion that I’ve reached: the original is a flawed if sometimes tremendous piece of work; flawed and tremendous for the exact same reason: the songwriting. It follows, then, that any re-recording of the album will also be flawed if sometimes tremendous, regardless of higher quality production.
I was disheartened to see said fans react so negatively to the re-recording, subtitled Face to Face. Common complaints: the drums and the guitars don’t have the same punch; the lack of reverb (?); the clinical production; it doesn’t make sense. The last one: on the original, a young Will Toledo took his guitar into his car and sang his heart out, and it doesn’t make sense to revisit the same subject matter some seven years later in a professional recording studio. I guess I don’t have much of a retort for that one, but to address the others: the drums and the guitars still hit hard; there’s a lack of reverb; the production gives some of the sounds room to breathe.
Naturally, a re-recording typically begs for comparisons to the original: what changes worked and what changes didn’t. The most obvious example is the changed spoken word at the back of “Nervous Young Inhumans,” where the revelation that “I, like, created you as a character, by pretending that I know a lot more about you than I actually do” and self-deprecation of “This is the part of the song where I start to regret writing it,” are replaced with “Do you know about Jesus? Do you really know? All you know is what you’ve been told. […] You’ve just been singing about girls. What do you know about girls?” The whole thing’s meaningless and I never want to hear it again, and there’s a wasted opportunity not to reference the Promise Ring’s best song. It especially sucks because that spoken word bit was one of the main emotional cruxes of the main album, along with the flip of “Stop Smoking” on “Sober to Death” and entirety of “Famous Prophets.”
Listening to “Cute Thing” the first time – by far my favorite cut on either album – I found myself picking it apart in that exact, methodical approach. For example, I hate the way he squeezes out “God, give me Frank Ocean’s voice,” hate how he stutters through “That’s- that’s, ah- that’s- that’s some good- good shit, man” to imitate a “stammering drunk.” (The original doesn’t have that stammer, and it still comes off because it’s a casual remark instead of a forced-casual remark.) I also sort of disliked – at first, anyway – how he puts more emphasis during the line, “I will be your rock – God when you’re rolling the dice,” because I always understood it to be either “I will be your rock God, when you’re rolling the dice,” or, “I will be your rock, God, when you’re rolling the dice,” without the added pause.
Side note: he’s changed the worship of Dan Bejar and John Entwistle in “Cute Thing” to Frank Ocean and James Brown. It made sense in 2011 to hear him want Dan Bejar’s voice, given Destroyer had put out his best album at the start of that year. Similarly, it makes sense in 2018 to hear him want Frank Ocean’s voice, particularly since Dan Bejar hasn’t put out anything of note in the years between. The change from John Entwistle to James Brown represents a shift away from rock to R&B in the tiniest of microcosms. Solange didn’t have the best album of 2016, in other words. She didn’t even have the best neo-soul album of 2016.
And you know, the Rock God line makes less sense following the namedrops of Frank Ocean and James Brown. Shame always when musical context is given backseat to image.
Anyway, my favorite part of the original has always been when he interpolates “Ana Ng” – They Might Be Giants’ best song – the way he does. Now, hearing that keyboard line – which sounds like a marimba – enter the third time (“Worked like a charm,” indeed) to that interpolation makes those changes and omissions like the opening guitar barrage and the reduced power of the bass melody during the instrumental bridges seem minute, to say nothing of those excellent backing vocals in the second chorus, or the fun stop-starts. It reminds me of when Sufjan Steven’s The Greatest Gift came out and I found myself playing and re-playing the iPhone demo of “Carrie & Lowell.” I love that version just as much as I do the live version even if it doesn’t have the climax; Sufjan Stevens’ voice is (somehow) even frailer on the short demo. My roundabout way of saying two different versions of the same song can be great for different reasons. Whodathunk, right?
But here’s the kicker: most of the changes are relatively minor: an electronic/psychedelic detail is added to “High Thing” that’s not enough to lift the dirge out of that status (although it sounds good when he sings “And this wallpaper / Keeps going round the room”); the drums on “Bodys” sounds more like a drum machine which brings out the grooviness (with a guitar line that points ahead or I guess behind to “Fill in the Blank”); he regrettably drops the lines “Thank God for the little things, and / Fuck God that they’re little things” from “Beach Life-in-Death” which might’ve been my favorite lyric on the album; he regrettably adds the lines “I’m not gonna end up a nervous wreck / Like the people I know who are nervous wrecks” on “Famous Prophets (Stars)” which is way too clumsy to be endearing; some samples are sprinkled throughout. Because of the wasted opportunity, songs that were great the first time ‘round remain great, and songs that weren’t remain that way. “Is it the Chorus yet? / No, it’s just the building of the verse, so when the chorus does come it’ll be more rewarding” is still witty (do Will Toledo’s impassioned vocals on “Bodys” recall Andrew Bird’s vocals at the end of “Heretics” for anyone else?); the anti-depression line still bothers me because I don’t think it’s true (at least, not for me); “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)” is still a dirge with as many ideas as “Stop Smoking” but for four times the length; he still sings “trying to be John Linnell” on “Cute Thing” with impossible reverence; the searing guitar line and repeated vocal melodies on “Famous Prophets” resonate just as much.
This isn’t the first time an artist has re-recorded previously loved tracks with a new band. You guys love Charles Mingus, right? (Or just the one album?) The guy who told everyone to throw out his previous records after releasing The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady ’cause he was going to re-do them? I wonder if fans approached Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus with the same reservations as they did this one, when he essentially did the exact same thing (‘cept he re-recorded individual tracks like a compilation instead of a full previous album). And despite a worse version of “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” and a poppier take on “Haitian Fight Song,” that album still turned out to be one of Mingus’ best albums. It’s the same thing here.