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Ty Segall’s ‘Manipulator’ Is the Album of the Year*

Is California rocker Ty Segall‘s new double-album Manipulator one of the records of the year? If this were 1974, it might be — on sonics and swagger it would be at least theoretically competitive with the likes of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, the New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon, Hawkwind’s Hall of the Mountain Grill, and Neil Young’s On the Beach. That’s saying a lot, but it also suggests where Manipulator‘s fossil fuels start to run dry.

It’s certainly the most accomplished work in the steadily rising, notoriously musically incontinent career of the 27-year-old phenom of the San Francisco garage-rock scene (recently resettled in L.A.). Before this, Segall already had produced seven or eight estimable solo albums, depending how you count, in the blink of six or seven years, as well as collaborations with comrades such as Mikal Cronin and White Fence and his own bands Traditional Fools and Fuzz (among others), plus myriad singles, split EPs, etc., not to mention near-perpetual touring.

The clown-car magic of that quantity of output makes some fans use words like “genius” or “prodigy,” reminiscent of Guided By Voices’ Bob Pollard or Mark E. Smith (you can hear Segall turning Marc Maron on to the Fall in last week’s WTF podcast interview). It doesn’t seem so radical if you think of the ’60s rock he idealizes, when frequent releases were just the way you stayed in the game, as with rap mixtapes today. (Today it’s often major labels that prefer creating artificial scarcity.) Up until now my favorite was probably the Ty Segall Band’s nervy, punishing Slaughterhouse (2012), which dared to scale the forbidden walls of the Stooges’ Fun House and gore itself on that proto-punk landmark’s jagged window glass.

Here, however, Segall finally decided to linger over a project, spending nearly a year writing and recording Manipulator. As a result, the effect of many of his previous records — like a match hitting a crate of fireworks — has been replaced by carefully laid fuses that sizzle steadily towards big, satisfying bangs. While his compositions are still structurally simple machines, on Manipulator the hooks are much more than hints, and the instrumental breaks (Segall plays everything on all but a few tracks) are staged dramatic peaks rather than hyper, non-stop expulsions.

Segall performs at Bonnaroo with Mikal Cronin, Manchester, Tennessee,  June 2014 / Photo by Jake Giles Netter

On “Feel,” for example, the jittery Led Zep guitar riff that underlies the chorus thickens with each reiteration until halfway through the song it seems to escape and turn on itself, its high and mid-range parts dueling with abandon until they come to a stalemate and are answered and grounded by a debonaire, semi-Latin drum solo that prepares the way for the climax. As much as people think of Segall as a raw-meat guitar hero, and he does know how to make feedback sing, he began as a drummer and it’s his sense of momentum and pacing that gives his songs — which verbally are often smudged sketches from the subconscious, on the order of early Syd Barrett or “Boris the Spider”-vintage Who — their coherence.

As well, Segall has learned to use his reedy voice, sometimes a flaw in the past, as an insinuating atmospheric device, switching between a paranoid glam tenor and a Beatles-y seraphic falsetto as if to loop together heaven and hell.

The 17 tracks are if anything consistent to a fault, a surfeit of potential singles that become a bit tiring only because, at an average of under four minutes each, there’s sometimes not enough time to absorb one song before another takes its place. At this overloaded point in musical history (or at least my musical history), I secretly wish most albums clocked in at no more than 15 to 20 minutes, but Manipulator is nearly triple that and I don’t resent it. It’s as if you’ve tuned in to the classic-hard-rock FM station and for almost an hour, instead of the usual overplayed roundabout of “Black Dog,” “Bang a Gong,” “Paint It Black,” etc., it’s airing one deep cut after another you’ve never heard before.

But that, of course, is also the problem. When all those 1974 albums I named up top were released, they weren’t primarily dropping references and trying to emulate previous rock peaks — they were inventing new modalities of expression, even attempting to mutate sound and identity to undreamt-of extremes. Repeating their gestures isn’t the way to emulate their spirit. There’s no question that Segall is gifted, but I’m hesitant to cheer too wildly for any artist for mostly working his way through a very well-assembled record collection without decisively projecting it into at least the present, if not the future. His vaunted stylistic zigzags might seem less random and gain more purpose if he didn’t hold himself at such a remove from current sounds. (If one of your heroes is David Bowie, how can you not want to seek out your own equivalent of Brian Eno, to transport you beyond your limits?)

“There are all these kids who are growing up on Skrillex and all this digital music,” Segall told Pitchfork in late 2012. “What are they gonna think when they hear rock’n’roll?” In today’s sample-everything online music age, that seems like a weird presumption, but what’s more surprising is to find a talented musician wanting to make a virtue of narrow listening. The best usually have enormous ears, ready to discover ideas anywhere. But garage-rock scenes are often the environment most hostile to that attitude. It’s not the retro focus that bothers me, but the authenticity fetish that often accompanies it, as if garage rockers have discovered some essential truth-of-rock’n’roll that others don’t know or have willfully forgotten. (And as if it hasn’t been discovered a thousand times before.)

Segall is more curious than that, or at least he’s getting there. Manipulator is a healthy sign of stretching beyond three-chord fundamentalism, with its glam and psychedelic strains and its lionization of craft. But it still radiates an insularity. In fact, that’s one of its themes, with many songs that seem wary of communication and connection as forms of confinement. (A line in the title track, “I use your phone to sneak inside your home,” even seems prescient of this week’s celebrity-nude hacking crime.)

In part it feels as if Segall is still reacting against his background. He grew up in affluent Orange County; Laguna Beach, the reality show that then became The Hills, was made about his high school while he was there. Of course he hated it. It’s always startling to me to remember that garage is often the music of privileged kids, because it sounds like it’s meant for poor kids, with its primitive tools and shameless scuzz. But naturally that’s the attraction, the rebellion via musical slumming. At its roots, the term “garage rock” implies that at least you had a garage — it’s not like you can make this kind of racket in a city apartment building. It’s a suburban form, born in the early ’60s, the apex of the early suburban age.

There are garage bands who open the door wider. I recently watched the 2011 documentary New Garage Explosion!!! In Love with These Times, which surveyed garage bands across America. The groups whose members included anybody who wasn’t a straight young white boy — women, queers, people of color, people over 40 — also tended to have heterodox ingredients in their sounds, such as girl-group or soul, metal or electro, that made them seem much fresher. I think of Detroit’s great Dirtbombs, for example, who made an excellent record in tribute to bubblegum pop (last year’s Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-blooey!) and, earlier, an album of garage covers of classic Detroit techno (2011’s Party Store). Too many of the other acts in the documentary seemed like obnoxious young dicks who’d prefer an era when guys were guys and rock frickin’ ruled.

There’s much more to Segall than that, but if he’s going to make albums that keep leaping ahead, he would do well to mix it up beyond his comfort zone, perhaps by expanding his base of collaborators. It might be positive that he’s left the coziness of the Bay Area garage scene and is revisiting the complexities of L.A., both as the area he came from and as a city not easily reduced to straight answers. Meanwhile, let’s celebrate Manipulator as a terrific, assured, and engaging set of songs — but reserve “album of the year” for the one he might create someday that really can tell us what time it is.