Rock is replete with musicians who toil away in multiple guises, releasing album after album with confounding frequency. If, every so often, a Jack White might leap from regional obscurity to international superstardom and friend of the legends, seemingly despite not altering his modus operandi from that which made him a staple of Detroit bars for several years, it’s more common for these musicians to remain no more than beloved cults. Many, too, seem to share a dogged devotion to a form of musical conservation: think of Nick Salomon, who as the Bevis Frond has devoted decades to psychedelia and its variants, or Robert Pollard, who, whether with Guided by Voices, as a solo artist or with enough other bands to fill a substantial festival bill, has released what appears to be a total of 82 albums of what he calls “the four Ps” – pop, punk, prog and psychedelia. By way of contrast, it’s rare to find a cult artist on an indie label releasing half a dozen albums a year, under assorted names, dedicated to their love of, say, contemporary Scandinavian cosmic disco
The latest in this lineage is California’s Ty Segall. Manipulator is merely his seventh official solo studio album since 2008, which seems positively parsimonious until you consider the 17 other albums released in various guises, as well as countless singles and EPs with the likes of Epsilons, Party Fowl, the Traditional Fools, the Perverts, Sic Alps and Fuzz. Whatever else one might say about Segall, there’s no doubting his work ethic. And, like Pollard, the four Ps loom large in his life – this is a man, Wikipedia tells us, whose “main and sometimes only pedal is a Death by Audio Fuzz War pedal”. With Fuzz, for whom he drummed, he took care of the prog by covering King Crimson; the punk has tended to be of the garage variety; the pop takes a definition from the mid-60s rather than the mid-noughties, and the psychedelia is all over the discography. If you were being unkind, you might suggest his music runs the gamut of styles from the Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin, but he’s managed to prove there’s a lot of ground between those two points to be farmed before the fields fall fallow.
With such profligacy comes the issue of quality control. Even the most committed Robert Pollard fan might concede their hero appeared to be releasing records for the sake of it when he put out an album of his stage banter entitled Relaxation of the Asshole, and the very best GBV albums contained songs it was a struggle to listen to twice. Which brings us to Ty Segall. One might suspect that an album nearly an hour long from a musician who views a day without a new release to be wasted could well contain longueurs, but Manipulator is an unadulterated joy from start to finish, perhaps because, rather than bashing it out in a couple of weeks, he took a year writing its 17 songs and then a month – nothing to Coldplay, but an eternity in the garage punk underground – recording it, with the aim of producing what he has called “a Tony Visconti kind of record”.
Visconti, who produced David Bowie’s great 70s records, as well as T Rex, Iggy Pop and others, is a good reference point. Not only because of the glam stomp that appears on tracks such as The Faker, or because of the twin guitar lines, reminiscent of Thin Lizzy– another Visconti client – that occur throughout the record, but also because of the cleanliness of the production: Manipulator sounds like a 70s record in that every element is always audible; there’s no mastering everything louder than everything else. Every instrument has its place, and every instrument does its job: there’s nothing sloppy about Manipulator; it’s precise.
Best of all, the songs are almost uniformly fantastic, and extraordinarily well sequenced. The Clock has an intricate, spiralling acoustic lead guitar line and a string-drenched chorus, but still has a feeling of aggression and attack: it might have fitted comfortably on Love’s Forever Changes. That cuts straight into Green Belly, with a lazy, loping, spacious, Stonesy riff, which in turn gives way to The Connection Man, on which Segall revisits the garage, with a fuzztoned bassline and wailing guitar solos. It’s a limited stylistic span, but the order emphasises the differences between the songs, not their similarities.
From its title track onwards – a delicious descending organ riff, joined by a perfectly constructed guitar line that doubles up on itself – Manipulator feels like a statement album, as if Segall has had enough of being hailed as a god by three dozen people in tiny clubs with extensive record collections drawn entirely from labels like In the Red and Sympathy for the Record Industry. It feels like the work of a man who’s looked at his predecessors and decided he’d rather be Jack White than Robert Pollard.