This Album Of The Week column has been running for nearly three years now, so it’s something of a surprise that Ty Segall has only appeared in this space once before. (He won Album Of The Week honors for the Stoogesian slobberknocker Slaughterhouse, and I was on paternity leave that week, so I didn’t even write the thing; Corban Goble was the man responsible there.) Segall is a human garage-rock factory, and the catalog he’s put together over the past few years has been, in its totality, spectacular: Album after album of deeply satisfying guitar jams, each one tackling a different nook or cranny of Segall’s own personal aesthetic. But he’s also got the unfortunate tendency to drop albums during busy weeks, so he keeps losing this thing. Hair, his great collaborative album with White Fence, lost to Torche in a decision that I might revisit if I could. Twins lost to Converge and arguably should’ve lost to Tame Impala. Sleeper lost to Superchunk. The self-titled debut from Segall’s power trio Fuzz lost to HAIM. And it’s not like Segall suddenly wised up. Manipulator, his new one, comes on one of the year’s strongest release dates. He’s up against Merchandise’s darkly glimmering and authoritative After The End and Rustie’s giddily ADD Green Language and the New Pornographers’ explosively tuneful Brill Bruisers, as well as strong efforts from J Mascis and the Bug and Basement Jaxx and, yes, Ariana Grande. I almost wrote about Cymbals Eat Guitars’ soaring and heartfelt amp-melter LOSE, an album way too good to be overlooked. But with Manipulator, Segall has finally made an album that transcends his own high standards, a sharp and immediate and tough and canny double-slab that, I’d argue, ranks as the best thing he’s ever done. He couldn’t be denied. It wouldn’t be right.
Segall has always existed head and shoulders above just about anyone else in the retro-garage rock scene that birthed him, but that says more about the scene than it does about Segall. For decades, garage rockers have attempted to mirror the crude, troglodytic immediacy of the mid-’60s proto-punk bands whose best singles were collected on the Nuggets compilations, without ever quite equaling the songcraft that made those bands local sensations in the first place. The ’90s Crypt Records crew made a ton of fun, scuzzy riffs, but the Devil Dogs and the Gories and the New Bomb Turks didn’t exactly have a “Louie Louie” in them, and neither do inheritors like Twin Peaks or King Khan. The Black Lips got over for a while on drunken live-show antics, but that’ll only get you so far. And even Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer, a mentor to Segall, achieves liftoff onstage a lot more often than he does on record. (All these bands can make for great, great nights out; I’m not hating.) But Segall has chops that most of those guys don’t have; his guitar solos burn and roar like prime Mascis. Segall doesn’t stick to a two-chord blueprint; he’s game to push his style into the Neil Young-style folk reveries of Sleeper or the almost-metal burn of Slaughterhouse even if he’d be fine kicking out rave-up after rave-up. And most importantly, Segall has songs. For how often he cranks out new albums, he almost never puts his name on a song that doesn’t have a serious hook. And on Manipulator, those hooks are more plentiful than ever.
If every Segall album offers his take on another rock subgenre, then Manipulator is the glam record, something he’s pounding home harder by rocking glittery makeup onstage and in press photos lately. But being who he is, Segall can’t make a typical glam-revival record. In recent decades, bands like Placebo have mined that early Bowie/T. Rex sound, but they’ve gone for lustrous sweep, adding a spotless production sheen that those early glam records didn’t really have. Really, though, glam and garage rock were never that far from each other, especially when you factor in the Bowie/Stooges connection or the first New York Dolls record. And that’s the blueprint Segall is working from. He spends all of Manipulator singing in a helium-whine upper register, and there’s some arch snap in both his vocals and his riffs. He’s got string sections on a few songs, an indulgence he’s never tried before. But his guitar still roars and sputters, and the production still has that live-in-the-room grime to it, even if Segall assembled the album painstakingly, piece by piece. (Segall plays almost every instrument on the record, and his touring band only shows up on one song.) The grandest, prettiest song on the album is probably the closing track “Stick Around,” with its orchestral coda and its acoustic strums and the haughty, flippant sneer in Segall’s voice. But even with that one, everything builds up to a dual guitar solo that will just punch through your stomach and rip your intestines out.
The 17 songs on Manipulator clock in at just under an hour, which makes the album easily Segall’s longest and a total epic by his standards. (Segall has been referring to it as a “double album” even though it fits comfortably on one CD, but you already knew he was a vinyl guy.) That hour flies by, though, for a lot of different reasons. For one thing, even though Manipulator largely stays within the glam side of what Segall does, it finds plenty of room for internal variation. The acidic acoustic-psych ditty “The Lover,” for instance, has Segall’s falsetto edging into Brett Anderson territory, and then he goes and follows it up with “It’s Over,” a percussive fuzz-rock workout with drums so busy that they remind me of the early-’70s rock songs (like the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man”) that got played at early discos because DJs didn’t have disco music to play yet. There are acoustic songs on Manipulator, and then there are drooling effects-pedal monsters. And even with how often Segall switches things up, he never loses his sense of basic propulsion.
Segall started out as a drummer, and other than when he’s guitar-soloing, he plays every single instrument like it’s percussion. His acoustic-guitar strums are hard and incisive, and they push songs forward. So does his protean distorto-bass. The all-drums breakdown on “Feel” reminds me of the part on “The Wizard” where Black Sabbath briefly morphed into an acid-funk band. The tambourines on the title track come in at the exact right moment. And it helps that Segall is a great drummer who has finally figured out his ideal drum sound. “Mister Main,” for instance, is a straight-up funk song that works as a better showcase for Segall’s drums than anything on the Fuzz album (even though Segall only plays drums in Fuzz). It’s got a swinging, push-pulling, syncopated groove that shows Segall has spent nearly as much time absorbing Meters records as he has with Sabbath and the Stooges. If kids still danced to rock music, there isn’t a single song on Manipulator that couldn’t find a home on the dancefloor.
For all its double-album ambition, Manipulator doesn’t exactly aspire to take us on a grand journey. It’s a collection of songs rather than a cohesive whole with its own narrative. But that actually works in its favor. These songs are great, and there’s not a single one worth skipping. And it’s exciting that, even on his big glam-rock move, Segall keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. People with his level of talent have a way of disappearing up their own assholes, but not Segall. He’s got a merciless efficiency to his songcraft, and he just can’t bring himself to let a song run past five minutes, since he knows better than to overstay his welcome. After years of slapdash recording, Manipulator marks the first time he’s committed to spending upwards of a year writing an album, then living in the studio for a month to record it. But that focus has only deepend his work ethic and his relentless sense of melody, and now he’s come away with one of the most confident and refreshing rock albums in recent memory. Segall has made a habit of topping himself, but I don’t know how he’ll top this. I just know he’ll try.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The New Pornographers’ purposeful, exploding-with-hooks Brill Bruisers.
• Merchadise’s swaggering goth-pop move After The End.
• Cymbals Eat Guitars’ triumphant, heartbroken, beautiful LOSE.
• Rustie’s joyously silly dance-music overload Green Language.
• J Mascis’ weary, gorgeously tuneful Tied To A Star
• Basement Jaxx’s dizzy global dance party Junto.
• Ariana Grande’s endearingly frothy My Everything.
• The Bug’s seesawing, intense pirate-radio workout Angels & Devils.
• The Rentals’ hooky reunion effort Lost In Alphaville.
• Cold Specks’ ruminative, eerie Neuroplasticity.
• Cayetana’s energetic punk rock debut Nervous Like Me.
• Former Vivian Girls leader Cassie Ramone’s solo debut The Time Has Come.
• Ashrae Fax’s dreampop comeback Never Really Been Into It.
• Bastard Sapling’s majestic black metal ripper Instinct Is Forever.
• Opeth’s reliably epic and progged-out Pale Communion.
• Harvey Milk side project Music Blues’ ominous debut Things Haven’t Gone Well.
• You.’s dark synthpop wallow Sunchaser.
• Cassavetes’ sharp, focused Oh So Long.
* SW/MM/NG’s moody psych-popper Feel Not Bad.
• Drums sideman Johnny Aries’ solo debut Unbloomed.
• WISH’s self-titled psych rock debut.
• Alma Construct’s self-titled EP.