Hero With a Thousand Faces: Ty Segall “Manipulator”

Will Schube is the rhyme regulator/mic manipulator My favorite artists tend to be those whom have a deep and intense respect for the technical aspects of their crafts: the filmmakers who can give...
By    October 6, 2014

Will Schube is the rhyme regulator/mic manipulator

My favorite artists tend to be those whom have a deep and intense respect for the technical aspects of their crafts: the filmmakers who can give every sort of detail about their favorite childhood films or the musicians who can rattle off the list of snare drums used on their favorite Zeppelin records. This obsessive form of adulation often finds itself seeping into the work of such mega fans turned artists. Whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s ability to pay homage to his favorite directors through technical astonishment and penetrating storytelling, or David Foster Wallace’s admiration for what other scholars of literature would call trash, this tendency to turn the overlooked into a focal point is what separates great artists from everybody else. Music has a long tradition of these experts—the sort of folks who turned childhood hours poring over liner notes into a career or spent their time nixing outdoor recreation in favor of hunting down the sort of drumsticks used by their favorite drummer. Ty Segall seems to be among this sort of company—the artist equal part creator and historian; the sort of musician who can insert his own sound into an unchanging tradition. The funny thing about Segall, though, is the fact that his discography thus far has yet to mirror the work he obsesses over. He can likely recite guitar tones for days, but when it comes to his own records, he spits out melodies at an unrelenting pace. Segall is so interesting precisely because he marries the brain of a scholar with the heart of a garage punk.

Since 2010, he’s released six solo records, an album of singles, a record as the Ty Segall Band, and a wonderful split LP with White Fence. He released three awesome albums in 2012 alone. Many artists spend entire careers hoping for such a run; Segall did it in a year. Segall strikes me as a taker—never complacent, never static, always pushing forward. But this seems to be an ethos more than a manner of practice. Segall rarely sticks to a particular sound for more than an album. All his records exist in the same sonic universe, but no two inhabit the same planet. Typically hard to pull off, Segall handles any new aesthetic influence with the deft hand of a practiced veteran. What results is an eclectic discography with no clear standout or distinction. Twins and Melted display his enviable versatility. His work with White Fence shows how well he’d fin in with the 60s psych scene (really, really well). Slaughterhouse is the closest thing a dude with such a friendly voice can get to a hardcore record. And Sleeper is the sleeper of the bunch—a nice respite form a career of yelling and shredding. The obvious question, then, is this: with so many bases already covered with shocking confidence and ease, where does Ty Segall go from here?

It’s easy to see why one would hope Segall narrows his scope in hopes of truly knocking one out of the park. He’s come close again and again, but he’s yet to release something by which he can be defined. Maybe this is intentional—like a hunted rabbit constantly scurrying from the loaded pistol—or maybe he’s simply ambivalent to the notion of a masterpiece. But considering the sort of music he reveres, and the ambition he constantly displays, the latter seems far from likely. Instead of sharpening his focus, Segall has decided to go even bigger; his latest release, Manipulator, is a seventeen track double album that is equal parts album and map to Segall’s ever-growing output. That Segall spent nearly twice as long working on Manipulator than anything prior is hardly the point. Crafting such a subtle work in the internet age is certainly brave, but it’s hard not to be in awe of Segall.Segall is a troubadour for a generation totally ambivalent towards such a character. His discography shines with subtle reflexiveness and prolificacy during an era in which these things don’t seem to matter. It’s often noted that back in the heyday of record sales, bands would tour to make records. Now, bands make records to go on tour. Segall seems to be an outlier. It’s difficult to imagine the demand for a seventeen track double album in an already overloaded discography when inboxes and Twitter feeds are inundated with thirty new songs every hour. It’s hard to keep up, but Ty Segall doesn’t give a shit.

Like all of Ty Segall’s other records, Manipulator is satisfying from beginning to end. Is it selfish to want more? To assume that there’s a logical step Segall has once again been outmaneuvered by? Manipulator, like Segall’s best work isn’t as much a kick of nostalgia as it is a harkening back and moving forward. He’s got his foot in 60s psych, 70s glam, 80s metal, 90s indie, but he’s still making music distinctly his own. This is ridiculously hard to do, especially considering the sort of bands who are thriving off being nothing more than a quilt of trendy influences (Hey, Foxygen!). Manipulator is the rare beauty that both wears its influences proudly and exists as its own means of transportation.

Manipulator most strongly brings to mind the sort of late 70s and early 80s British glam popularized by David Bowie and Marc Bolan—after Bolan’s psych-folk phase, but before he was full-blown T-Rex. The songs lead us to other places, not deeper into themselves. Segall seems fairly complacent drifting—the album has a few tracks with extended guitar solos that are more ambivalent than energizing. “Tall Man” falls under this spell, as its late guitar solo moves from a place of purpose into one of nothingness. This sort of meandering can become tedious over a 17-track album. However, Segall’s knack for engaging songwriting often snaps Manipulator back into something genuinely worthwhile and enjoyable (Which is less of a backhanded compliment than it may seem. Manipulator is not disposable, which, these days, seems to be a huge boundary for a lot of music to leap over.). Segall’s ability to use melody to save his more adventurous side is both good and infinitely frustrating. We see glimpses of what the ideal Ty Segall record sounds like, he’s just never quite able to reach it.

The album’s middle section is also its strongest. “The Faker” is one of the album’s best tracks—fitted with a slow-building introduction before Segall’s voice comes through more clearly than it does on any other track. “The Singer”—which appears a bit earlier in the record—riffs on a sort of disenchanted psychedelia by using a shuffle in six which lulls the listener into a sense of uneasiness. Sings Segall, “Now I feel so down/suffering on the ground.” One thing that runs straight through Manipulator from beginning to end is an absolutely flawless sense of production. The drums are always crisp, Segall’s guitar tones are familiar yet varied. “The Hand,” manages to blend a sitar-influenced riff with a guitar tone and drums sound straight out of a White Snake track. However, this initial shock gives way to something far more sterile as Segall takes on a wispy tone before the chorus is once again accompanied by devastating guitar crunch. The album’s flaws are represented in that single transition from verse to chorus, from static to moving; Segall is adventurous yet afraid of reaching too far. “The Crawler” is one of the moments in which the listener is assured that Ty Segall is capable of consistent greatness. The track is a throwback with manic drums and guitars humming with distortion; Manipulator seems to be lacking this sort of edge. “The Crawler” feels like the album’s best track, or maybe it’s just the best representation of Manipulator’s untapped potential.

Segall tries to squeeze a double album worth of songs into a record that doesn’t need quite so many. It’s hard not to think that Segall may have spread himself a bit thin. While Manipulator certainly falls short of historic standards, it’s still a damn good record. However, it’s good qualities do less for the album’s positives than it does tempt the listener to imagine what it could have been if Segall extended this much energy over something more intimate. Manipulator showcases seventeen songs because it’s a double album; it’s not a double album because it has seventeen songs worth showcasing.

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