On average, Ty Segall has graced three to 10 different noisy, lo-fi rock releases annually since 2006. Prolific isn’t a strong enough word to describe the blonde late-twentysomething’s unremitting output of staticky garage-gasms, and it says something that diluting the market so intensely hasn’t gotten in the way of his burgeoning status as a critic’s darling.
It further speaks to a healthy confidence level that Sleeper is billed as the “only new Ty Segall album being released in 2013,” even if that’s just a pseudo-humblebrag. (There’s already been two solo 7-inches this year, as well as joint releases with the band Fuzz.) But if the 10 songs here are to be considered definitive snapshots of his current mindstate, they depict our hero in a state of self-reflection. Droplets of the Classic Rock as Religion gospels he absorbed as a teen — from T. Rex to Bowie to Neil Young — pour from Segall’s acoustic guitar as he sings general lyrics about “sweet love,” as practiced by women and men who don’t care about anything else because, well, they’re in love (or not in love, depending on the song).
On the surface, this is lighter than his usual fare — a little simpler and more impressionistic, less about following in the footsteps of Thee Oh Sees/ John Dwyer or keeping up with the Joneses/No Ages/Diarrhea Planets — but it’s also a more mature approach, letting his minor chords drone on (but not for too long), and concentrating everything he has on his plaintive wails. Segall’s still building psychedelic tapestries out of echoes and whispers, but for the most part, these songs would still betray post-hippie tendencies even if he didn’t dress them in the hand-me-down vestments of his Nuggets forefathers.
Most importantly, he’s discovered the power of his own voice. On 2012’s Twins, his screechy, proto-metal guitar squalls took center stage; later that year, he channeled his six-string expressionism into the acid-washed psych-rock nightmares of Slaughterhouse (credited to the Ty Segall Band). But on both records, his vocals acted as just another instrument — a nasal and rhythmic squawk, a soaring glissando, a snotty nanny-nanny-boo-boo — buried in a Jag-Stang rumble familiar to fans of the Black Lips or one of his former In the Red labelmates. But here, there are no noisy guitars to hide behind.
And so, right from the trudging, opening chords of Sleeper’s title cut, our host’s warble emerges as the lead instrument. Suddenly, we can hear him stuttering as he ruminates on dreams and sweet love, and a certain stunted pain comes through as he howls, “Oh, baby!” with the sort of conviction, the sort of honesty, that comes through when an artist believes he’s the first human being to ever howl, “Oh, baby!” (Here’s to you, Robert Plant.) From that moment on, each song’s web of acoustic guitars, violins, and post-Marc Bolan rhythms serves as a safety net for Segall’s otherwise unadorned voice, and predicting what he’ll do with it next is one of this record’s finest pleasures.
Musically, much of Sleeper seems to draw from Syd Barrett trippiness, Galaxie 500 haze, and even a little Exile on Main Street–style blues-rock explosiveness, but Segall doesn’t approach the mic like Barrett, Dean Wareham, or Mick Jagger. Instead, he plays around with his inflection, easing himself in one toe at a time. On the strummy “The Keepers,” the California-born artist adopts a difficult-to-place accent; for “Crazy,” one of the album’s catchiest songs, he proffers a vocal concoction one part Bowie, one part Eric Cartman, as he declaims, “He’s here / He’s still here / Though she is craze-uhhh,” throwing in a falsetto crazeh here and there for good measure.
“She Don’t Care,” a sort of lyrical spin on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” is the prettiest and saddest track, built on lo-fi orchestral strings and heavily strummed guitar, though it’s the way Segall lilts the line “She don’t care about you” in an equally carefree and damning way that truly makes the song. The most daring experiment here is “Queen Lullabye” [sic], which rumbles with ominous, bass-y reverb as he pleads, “Please don’t cry” from beneath blankets of murky effects before the reverb buzz overtakes the song like a deafening bumblebee swarm.
The dearth of dramatic musical up-lighting on Sleeper throws a few of Segall’s more intriguing influences in sharp relief. He’s released a coupleof different EPs titled Ty Rex in the past; here, his Bolan worship further intensifies on “Sweet C.C.,” though not in an obnoxious way. As he plays a pretty, T. Rex-y riff, he also drums a click-clack “Jeepster”-like rhythm on his guitar top, and by song’s end he’s thrown in the turnaround to the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (likely because it’s just so easy in an open tuning). Although he’s never tried to hide his roots (and he’s often preached a gospel of post-irony in interviews), it’s refreshing to hear something this reverent, especially since it distracts from various wayward lyrical entreaties (“Like a daisy, you’re making the whole world cry”) and a sloppy guitar solo that would sound better on a full-bore garage-rock song.
Overall, though, the absence of pretense does more good than harm here. By emphasizing his singing rather than the usual wailing walls of distortion, Segall expertly treads the fine line separating rockist classicism from lo-fi innovation. If Sleeper really is his only full release this year, at least we’ll only have to wait a few months to see where 2014’s half-dozen or so releases take him.