Satirizing emotional connection one guitar freakout at a time
by Jericho Cerrona
Does Ty Segall ever sleep? The indie darling has amassed quite an eclectic catalog since first appearing from the fog-drenched gutters of San Francisco in 2008, including 9 studio albums, which of course, doesn't factor in numerous solo material and countless collaborations with other artists. This insatiable need for productivity could be seen as a case of millennial ADD or simply a natural extension of working within a musical landscape where the adage is to "write and record as much material as humanely possible". Since anyone with an amp, a few effects pedals, and a detuned guitar can bang out garage racket on their own dime, the archaic days of waiting in anticipation for one's favorite artists to release records the old fashioned way has become a relic from a lost era. Segall, though, feels like someone from that lost era; and his music, by and large, reflects a 60s/70s sensibility, with an emphasis on psychedelia, glam, and cacophonous garage rock.
On 2014's Manipulator, Segall seemed to be commenting on his past work while taking a step toward more commercial accessibility. Though he flaunted his Stooges and Hawkwind influences on Twins and doom metal on side project Fuzz, Manipulator saw him going in a different direction, with a more approachable vein of 60s psych ballads and 70's glam dominating the proceedings. It was, in a sense, Segall's version of a pop album. With Emotional Mugger, Segall throws another curveball and retreats back into his lo-fi roots with a set of shredding garage rock. It may come as something of a disappointment for those who felt his last effort was a genuine coming out party, but there was also something safe about Manipulator; it never went for the jugular or dipped into Segall's abrasive tendencies as a songwriter, something that Emotional Mugger corrects in fascinating fashion.
The album was initially announced via a cryptic VHS tape sent to music journalists, with a press release consisting only of an absurdist poem and a clip where Segall explained the concept behind the record, which had to do with psychoanalysis and digital sexuality, or well, something. The whole in-joke elusiveness here could be seen as a bit of trolling on Segall's part; an attempt to build faux-mystique for someone who really hasn't earned it (despite his popularity within the indie scene, Segall is no Robert Pollard or John Cale), but really, it does make sense in concert with the actual music here. If Manipulator was meant to be listened to while strolling through pastoral fields, then this one should be turned up as loud as possible inside a basement through shitty speakers. It's a disjointed, noisy listen; full of guitar freakouts, sputtering synths, jagged rhythms, and nearly indecipherable lyrics, with Segall often lowering his register into a kind of "demon voice", similar to what John Dwyer was up to on Thee Oh See's wonderful Castlemania. From the brilliant keyboard/guitar lick of opener "Squealer" to the King Crimson-esque progressive noise of "California Hills" and the vamping bravado of "Mandy Cream", a sexually perverse ditty covered in guitar feedback and distortion, it's clear that Segall cares very little if anyone finds these songs pleasurable or not.
This fuck-off attitude, which extends to how loose and live-sounding everything comes across here, is not merely an affectation, though. There's something liberating about Segall not worrying about pleasing anyone but himself. Many critics proclaimed that Manipulator was his entrance into the rock big leagues, and humorously, Segall's response was to throw all of his sonic tricks into a meat grinder and then lap up the blood and guts. Emotional Mugger lurches from one temp change to the next, throwing out knotty drum patterns, theremin interludes, affected vocals and in the case of "W.U.O.T.W.S", a lo-fi take on The Beatles' "Revolution 9". No matter how discordant things become, however, Segall never completely abandons his classic rock n'roll fixations. Surprisingly, the album maintains a sense of rhythmic energy--"Squealer, "Mandy Cream", "Candy Sam" and "Diversion" all have a propulsive, almost funky swagger--and Segall's strengths in terms of writing catchy hooks are still here, albeit more buried in grimy tape hiss.
The best thing about Emotional Mugger, other than the fact that it's a rowdy rip-fest, is that it feels genuinely adventurous in a way many of Segall's past efforts have not. This is not a passive listening experience. There are no clean breaks or straightforward rock songs. Hell, there's even a warped children sing-along during the outro of "Diversion". It is, above all else, Segall's visceral attempt at prodding and riling up his audience, and that's something we desperately need in rock n' roll right now.