Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Ty Segall – Manipulator

It’s modern rock folklore that, while Laguna Beach was being filmed in his neighbourhood, revolving around some of his…


It’s modern rock folklore that, while Laguna Beach was being filmed in his neighbourhood, revolving around some of his classmates, Segall and his friends would ditch school to surf, smoke and burrow to the bottle-bottom of rock music. Finding his comfort-zone early on in the uncomplicated zest of 60s bands like The Troggs and The Sonics, Segall’s creative intuition would forever revert to rough-edged garage as his muse. This loyalty would ineludibly be qualified by his variegated eclecticism.

His voracious appetite saw to it that he obsessively absorbed (he had Neil Young’s name and ‘Volume 4’ tattooed on himself), from its blues roots to its myriad sub-branches, the comprehensive progression of rock n’ roll, which has endlessly availed his creative output. As such, the ever-recording 27 year-old is celebrated not with an arguably pejorative ‘garage-rocker’ label, but rather as an acclaimed artist that plays unfailingly exciting rock n’ roll music for any sphere. The newly-Los Angelan resident has thus far permitted himself the freedom to pick and choose his influences from record to record while never betraying listeners on the unmistakable scent of a Ty Segall song. Case in point (indeed in the superlative): Manipulator, his adventurously glam-focused seventh LP, finds foundation covering the blemishes, eye-shadow adorning hung-over eyes, and a tighter-jeaned Segall setting foot on the wild side. The result is his most compelling work to date. 

Segall is candid about his disillusion with modern music and rock n’ roll culture, with particular regard to the glaring absence of mysticism that once surrounded its most outlandish characters. Using his example: in the 1970s, the cover-art, liner-notes and recordings themselves provided the only information mesmerised daydreamers would have about unearthly personas like Ziggy Stardust. Things are quite different today. And while this is mostly a blessing for music nerds and internet seekers, the unfortunate demystification of these otherworldly performers is the implicit trade-off, which in turn depletes the surrounding culture.  But in his disenchanted nostalgia, Segall has afforded this generation with an opportunity to marvel at our own heroes.

In the breath-taking Conan performance of album-highlight, ‘Feel’, surely the sexiest song in his repertoire, the talent-abundant Ty Segall Band (Mikal Cronin, Charles Moothart and Emily Rose Epstein), beheld a special moment in their careers. It wasn’t difficult to forget who was performing. Segall, for the first time ever, had dared to venture a leap further with an undercut spin on the flamboyant visual aesthetics of his idols: Bowie, Reed and Eno. The show was an inimitably smooth display of rock star-chic, an elegant desertion of the chaotic folly to which fans had become accustomed. The neat, shredding first single ‘Susie Thumb’ and its accompanying image sparked interest, but the live-performance was certainly the appetising clincher.

Captivation by the mystery that trails its iconoclastic famous figures has always pointed to idolatry’s pathway. But the allure of glam-rock is apparent in its aural trademarks, too: the tooth-rottingly sweet melodies, sleazy power-chords (‘The Faker’), stirring riffage (‘Mister Main’) and attitude-glazed falsetto vocals (everywhere). And its stars were never without their darkness, which certainly added to the mystery – a small detail grasped suitably by the album’s cover. Melancholic waltz ‘The Singer’ and the seedy ‘Connection Man’ are the recorded manifestations of Segall’s concealed eyes: darker, mysterious numbers that add a welcome sinister dimension. ‘Tall Man Skinny Lady’ offers an extension of this contrast, its punchy instrumentals paired with a high-pitched conveyance of baneful lyrics. In opting for the glam-tilted route, with the added effort of a slight wardrobe change, make-up and slicker stage moves, Segall alludes to the richly cultured ‘old days’ and revives a moment of fascination for those witnessing the spontaneous transformation of this shaggy-haired rabble-rouser into a glittered-up, hip-shaking demi-god. 

Despite his intensive listenership, Segall’s work has never submerged into the arcane depths of spot-the-reference record-collector rock (unlike personal friend, John Dwyer, with Thee Oh Sees). All this talk of ‘glam’ does not suggest that the overall sound of this album is not distinctly ‘Ty Segall’: it very much still is. ‘It’s Over’ is the most obvious in this regard – the blunt story’s-end to ‘Would You Be My Love’. Rather, Manipulator is infused with glam-rock homages that find Segall not quite as beholden to the likes of The Slider-era Marc Bolan as, for example, the Smith Westerns. But on flaunted numbers like ‘The Faker’ and ‘Green Belly’, one senses Segall’s glee at finally getting his Tony Visconti moment (who produced some of the 70s’ finest glam-rock pieces), and nailing it.

At just under an hour, Manipulator is long for a Ty Segall record. The double-album format is the likely result of a 14-month break between albums – a record for him in recent years. Slaughterhouse comes closest, time wise, but that’s if you include the depraved, alienating ten-minute Metal Machine Music throwback, ‘Fuzz War’, which I doubt many listeners do. But the latter still takes the cake for ‘densest’ because, in spite of its length, Manipulator is decidedly the most effortless-to-endure item in his discography. Even Hair, the brief, eight track split LP with San Franciscan psychedelic-stalwart, White Fence, isn’t quite as sonically svelte because of its sound-battle quirks. There are few dull moments across the record but these are either outweighed by the personality of the songs or by Segall’s solo instrumental duels (he plays most of them himself). Otherwise, the playlist goes from strength to strength. 

Only nearing the end of side-C does the triumphant ‘The Hand’ confidently bleed into the explosive ‘Susie Thumb’. ‘Don’t you want to know? (Sue)’ starts like a stoner-folk Sleeper outtake to take things full-circle before unwinding into a glittering, country-tinged affair. On side-D, Segall keeps the falsetto but hinges on pre-glam psychedelia for a charged send-off until the next-few-months’ time. Incendiary commencer ‘The Crawler’ suggests some frenetic indebtedness to Cream on a hotplate, spiralling to a hasty close before freakish groove, ‘Who’s Producing You’? Budget-ballad follow-up, ‘The Feels’, aims true for the target designated by its title, setting the stage for an appropriately theatrical finale as Segall implores listeners to ‘Stick Around’.

Each track on Manipulator provides a synopsis of the album. Hypocritically detailing the character of multiple ‘manipulators’, Segall entices listeners ironically to fall victim themselves. His mastery of manipulating his lifelong influences into passionate, intelligent rock songs, whose appeal will ultimately and justifiably be attributed to him, is what sets him apart from today’s legion of guitar musicians. And while he eschews today’s music, he successfully evades the temptation to remain in the past by making art that, while in many ways bound to its predecessors, remains firmly relevant for this day and age. Manipulator is by no means glam-revival. Instead, it lives a dual-life of being a rock n’ roll record that will soundtrack this coming summer, as well as being an open-invitation to fans to explore the rich music and culture that influenced it, making it one of this 2014’s triumphs across the board and the gem in Segall’s handsome discography.

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