Years before Will Toledo became indie-famous in the wake of Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 breakthrough Teens Of Denial, he was among the most prodigiously talented underground singer-songwriters posting album after self-made album on Bandcamp. From 2010 to 2014, a prolific woodshedding period that predates the release of his 2015 Matador debut Teens Of Style, Toledo shared a whopping 11 albums on the independent musician platform. Taken together, these releases tell a fascinating coming-of-age story about a young man’s artistic maturation.
The gem of this bunch is 2011’s Twin Fantasy, an ambitious song-cycle that found Toledo experimenting with sprawling, multi-part mini-epics that extend well beyond the 10-minute mark. Toledo later honed this suite-oriented style of songwriting on tracks like the Teens Of Denial centerpiece “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” which builds with purpose over the course of several minutes to an anthemic climax.
Twin Fantasy, however, isn’t so refined. Back then, Toledo was a more like a mad scientist with too many ideas trying to cram everything into a single beast, resulting in wild and thrilling wonders like “Beach Life-in-Death” and “Famous Prophets (Stars)” that threaten to fall apart at any moment and yet, miraculously, don’t.
Lyrically, Toledo is no less ambitious on Twin Fantasy, writing frankly about a doomed, obsessive love affair with sardonic wit and unguarded despair. Packing in references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and philosophical ideas derived from aesthetics about man’s fraught relationship with human-like objects, Toledo also occasionally steps outside of his songs to comment on them as they’re happening. Like in the scrappy Guided By Voices homage “Bodys,” in which Toledo drolly wonders, “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.” Another personal favorite aside occurs in “Nervous Young Inhumans,” in which Toledo wanders from the song to note the Shelley influence, like a film director deconstructing a scene on the DVD commentary track.
For those who started following Toledo’s career early on, or went back to the Bandcamp releases after getting hooked on Teens Of Denial, the lo-fi but bracingly emotional Twin Fantasy doesn’t need fixing. Toledo, however, disagrees. As he recently told Rolling Stone, one of the conditions of his record deal with Matador was that he would eventually be allowed to re-record Twin Fantasy in a real studio, rather than on his home computer, and give it the big-time rock treatment that’s he’s long dreamed of. Hence the new version of Twin Fantasy that is, in nearly every way, bigger, grander, and more accomplished than the original.
This isn’t the first time that Toledo has revisited his pre-fame Bandcamp work as raw material to reshape into something a little more mainstream and professional. Five songs from Teens Of Style, for instance, originally appeared on 2011’s My Back Is Killing Me Baby. But this is the first time he’s re-made one of those early albums wholesale, and the care that’s been taken to fill out every nook and cranny of these songs with layers of lush guitars, robust drums, incisive synths, and creamy backing vocals is frequently dazzling. Without question, the new Twin Fantasy is an easier, more car stereo-friendly listen. But in creating a “better” version, Toledo has inevitably sacrificed some of the raw intimacy that makes the first Twin Fantasy such a heavy gut-punch.
Fans of the original album will inevitably compare what they’re already familiar with to the revised edition that Toledo believes has “replaced” the old version. Whether this is fair depends on how much credit you’re willing to give Toledo for “improving” upon what’s already a strong album.
To be fair, substantial parts of the new Twin Fantasy, purely on a sonic level, blow what came before out of the water. The reworked “Cute Thing,” for starters, is a revelation — on the first Twin Fantasy, it sounds like Toledo recorded the track as it was being written. It’s a promising doodle and nothing more. On the new album, however, “Cute Thing” has achieved full blossom, thanks to the added muscle in the production and an obvious upgrade in Toledo’s musical craft.
Other tracks are more rewritten more substantially, most notably “Famous Prophets (Stars),” which balloons from an already hearty 10-minute running time to over 16 minutes, affording space for new verses, a guitar solo, and a piano interlude. The new version overtly evokes Pink Floyd, one of Toledo’s main inspirations at the time of the original Twin Fantasy, as well as the grandiose bloat of “November Rain”-era Guns N’ Roses.
The new lyrics in “Famous Prophets” leaven the romantic fatalism of the original cut with some newfound perspective from an older, wiser Toledo. “There’ll be nothing left to say,” he sings, from a removed rock-star perch. “There’ll be no backstage pass.” Similarly, “Nervous Young Inhumans” excises the riff on Mary Shelley for an extended, stream-of-consciousness monologue that seemingly references Toledo’s hectic tour schedule. “It’s been summer since February. I was in Australia! God! California — then what? June, July, August — a month in Europe?” he muses.
Therein lies the essential difference between these fantasies — Toledo’s self-consciousness. The new Twin Fantasy was made with the knowledge that a sizable audience will hear it, and you can now detect a certain distance from the songs that wasn’t there the first time. One of my favorite tracks on Twin Fantasy is a strummy 88-second stunner called “Stop Smoking.” The new version is buoyed by a lovely acoustic guitar, Toledo’s polished croon, and the confidence of an assured, adult artist. The old version is like eavesdropping on a kid discovering for the first time that he’s capable of creating a memorable melody. The new Twin Fantasy presents Toledo as a burgeoning genius, whereas the first Twin Fantasy captured a moment of special, fleeting innocence.
All of the clever tricks and musical wizardry that the more experienced Toledo has applied to songs written by his younger, more naive self has resulted in an album that’s nearly as compulsively listenable as Teens Of Denial. But forgive me if I don’t delete the original from my iTunes library just yet. All of the things that Toledo would rather you forget about Twin Fantasy — the rough edges, the imperfections, the guilelessness of youth — still move me a little more deeply.
Twin Fantasy is out now via Matador Records. Get it here.