Ty Segall is a musician who doesn’t sit still. He’s been cranking out albums at a crazy pace for much of his career, and his pace has only increased over time, putting out albums like Hair, his collaboration with White Fence and the eponymous debut of his side-project Fuzz while also recording his own solo records, like Twins and last year’s Sleeper. That last record, the mostly acoustic album that came out in fall 2013, felt like a departure for a guy who so often plays his guitars so loud it’s hard to get through a review of his records without hearing about faces melting.
But Manipulator is the true departure for Segall, though not as much in sound as you might think. The real change here is in approach. Segall took 14 months to record this album and spent a full month of that in the studio perfecting these songs. It’s far and away the longest it’s taken for Segall to make a record, and you can feel the attention in the careful construction of these songs. But it’s not a wild departure sonically, but instead a return to and refinement of tangents we’ve heard from Segall in the past. In fact, his career isn’t a straight line so much as it is a series of tangents. Hair is white-noise psych-pop, while Twins may contain the signature volume and distortion we assign to Segall, it’s a back and forth record, a sort of blast and fall out that shifts in subtle and jarring ways. Sleeper simply unmasked the bittersweet melodies underneath all that volume, and snuck in a few solos anyway.
If Manipulator has a clear counterpart in the Segall oeuvre, it’s in Goodbye Bread. Time and subsequent releases have sort of snowed that album under, but it was Segall’s most pop oriented album, a collection of sweet tunes that echoed and jangled more than they crunched. In some ways, Manipulator is a beefed-up, more expansive take on that sensibility. This is pretty clear up front, when the title track leads off with a bright organ hook and the light shuffle of drums instead of blaring feedback. “Tall Man Skinny Lady” rattles along on brittle acoustic guitar phrasings. “Green Belly” peels back the guitar layers to play with vocal harmonies. “Who’s Producing You?” may have lacerating guitar fills, but it’s also a song that even at its loudest champions rhythm and propulsion over shredding, not surprising considering Segall also plays drums.
The record explores all manner of rock and pop traditions, and the songs here vary their approach by shifting the spotlight to certain layers of the songs. This constant tilting of the focus allows Segall to explore new themes as well. If Sleeper found Segall at his most bare and isolated, Manipulator finds him often overwhelmed. In the title track, Segall takes the position of a controlling force, one that will “use your telephone to sneak into your home.” The album comes back to this somewhat antiquated worry of technology and media on “Susie Thumb”, about a girl who wants to be on TV. In both songs, you sense the claustrophobia of being surrounded by things that beep and glow at us all day, even as we may or may not resist them. Meanwhile, on “Tall Man Skinny Lady”, Segall begs for someone to “try to cure my soul.” In “The Connection Man”, Segall seems both protective of the “corners of our minds” and still hoping to make, yes, connections, provided they’re true, not ones he’s manipulated into.
The music often evokes this newfound tension in Segall’s songs perfectly. “Tall Man Skinny Lady” may jangle along, but the guitar solo is all teeth-gritting frustration. “Feel” has the same Sabbath-rumble that the Fuzz record had, but the guitar work comes unhinged only to return to the order of percussion. And for all the talk we can make about Segall’s pop sensibility, he’s hardly tamed on this record, as blistering takes like “It’s Over” and “The Crawler” will attest.
In these more blasting moments and elsewhere, Segall finds escape hatches to sneak out from under the manipulative thumb that hovers over the record. On “The Faker” he starts small with, “ask your boss man for a raise, / Tell your mama to keep the change.” On the sweet acoustic opening of “The Feels”, he sings of finding common ground. “Now I realize you’re the same as me,” he sings, and his voice is as high and sweet and full as it has ever been. “The Singer” spends the middle of the song worrying about a love that is gone, but this isn’t about heartbreak. It’s not gone forever, just for now. Segall captures the way in which we can irrationally miss a new love when they’re not right there in front of us well, and he has a simple solution to keep the feeling alive, to maintain connection: “Keep singing.”
Manipulator, then, is an album that presents tensions and then searches for any and all alleviation of them. More than once Segall sings of freedom here, and you can feel the perspective he’s gained in taking time with these songs, in trying to find that freedom instead of capturing just the in-the-moment frustration quicker recordings might yield. At 17 songs and 55 minutes, it’s Segall’s biggest record, and that could overwhelm the listener as well. Occasionally, on say “Don’t Want You to Know (Sue)”, things get too straightforward and you’re ready for the next tangent. But Manipulator is another fine record for Ty Segall, and another in an increasing list of new accomplishments. No matter how we may sometimes pin him down to that face-melting guitar guy, Segall keeps putting out records that complicate that idea of him, and this is the latest satisfying wrinkle.
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