It’s understandable that Ty Segall’s calling card to this point has been the prolific amount of work that he’s cranked out the past few years in the vanguard of a vibrant neo-garage scene. But you could argue that the sheer volume of his discography — in his case, releasing only one album under his own name in 2013 seems like slacking — has overshadowed an underappreciated sense of variety to his music. So just as Segall has never taken the time to rest on his laurels, you also won’t catch him repeating himself, a feat all the more prodigious considering how much music he’s put out there in such a short amount of time. That’s particularly evident on his formidable run of recent albums, something you notice once you take a breath and reflect back a little: 2011’s Goodbye Bread was the straight-up new-grunge garage-pop disc that got him really noticed, while 2012 found him mining different niches of the scrappy rock aesthetic he works in, with the heavy-rock gut-punch of the Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse balanced out by the psychedelic-pop of Twins, his catchiest, most tuneful work to date.
What’s most impressive about Sleeper, then, is that Ty Segall still has some surprises up his sleeve, shocking you this time out with what’s his most subtle and vulnerable work yet. As much as we’ve heard from Segall the last couple of years, we haven’t really heard him like this before, as he builds much of this new effort around his resonant acoustic guitar play. Indeed, anyone who thinks you know what you’ll get from Segall on Sleeper will likely be blown away by the up-close-and-personal tone that kicks off the album on the title-track opener, his lush unplugged strumming no doubt eliciting its fair share of admiring head shaking for living up to expectations by defying them. And that’s before the melancholy strings come in to join the steely guitar shimmer, more evocative in its poignant tone than the visceral thrill you typically get with Segall’s staggering garage rock. If his last outing Twins was Segall’s most fleshed out, Sleeper turns out be his most meticulous, considering the framework he’s working in is more immediate and requires more touch than you might’ve thought such a rambunctious and mercurial artist possessed.
Made after his adoptive father passed away and the subsequent estrangement from his mother, Sleeper also happens to be Segall’s most personal work, one that marks a development not just in his sound, but his psyche. Shorn of the coating of fuzz and feedback that’s something of his trademark, the songs here aren’t afraid to reveal Segall with his guard down, especially on the lolling, waltz-like “The Keepers”, which begins with the lines, “Look in the mirror / See what you see / Be what you be.” But if Sleeper is indeed a sustained and perceptive look in the mirror for Segall, it’s never in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing kind of way, since his more introspective lyrics here reach out for a stronger connection to his listener, paradoxically enough. That feeling comes through with particular force on the fragile, sparsely melodic “Crazy”, where Segall offers up pithy aphorisms like “Give your heart a brand new start” and “Don’t forget where you come from” in a piercingly contemplative way that has to be about himself and the album’s back story, while still applying to others in need of some sound advice.
To set the right tone, it certainly helps that the music never lapses into the clichéd conventions that acoustic material can sometimes imply, as Segall avoids self-absorbed monotony by finding variety in technique and composition from track to track. There’s breadth and depth to how he delves full bore into his acoustic approach on Sleeper that keeps it from getting too one-note or bleeding-heart singer-songwriter-y. On the guitar picking clinic of “6th Street”, he goes from angular plucking to rich, full strum, while “Come Outside” punctuates almost Zeppy folk with hand-tapped percussion to create as organic a feel as Segall has ever conjured up without getting hippy-dippy on you. The right kinds of embellishments are brought in judiciously but to powerful effect, like the way the barebones, unvarnished acoustic playing of “The Man Man” leads into a plugged-in blues passage or how the dirgy “She Don’t Care” starts as stompy pub-folk that rises to another level as the strings in the background lift Segall’s voice to an almost angelic high when he sings the title line as if it were a spiritual revelation. But it’s the sprawling “Queen Lullabye” that ends up as the musical centerpiece here, showing off the full range of Segall’s palette with an art-folk sound reminiscent of early Velvet Underground, as his rapid-fire plucking comes up against the ominous reverb looming behind it to create an effect that recalls the drone-y instrumental part of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.
And yet, the more compelling and telling moment on Sleeper is the one it ends on with the meat-and-potatoes, lo-fi country ditty “The West”, which finds Segall coming through on the other side of the tumultuous “Queen Lullabye” still searching for something more. There, when he sings “Where do I go home?”, only to ask whether it’s in the west with his father or east with his mother, Segall seems to find himself at a crossroads with the chapter of his life and career that Sleeper represents, suggesting that an open-ended journey lies before him yet. Ever restless and inventive, Ty Segall may be at his peak right now, but, as “The West” augurs, he’s on a twisting, winding musical path that gets more and more rewarding the more unpredictable it gets.