by Kelly Johnson
When I saw Ty Segall perform in Chicago on September 23, 2014 promoting his album Manipulator, he and his most consistent backing team (Mikal Cronin, Emily Rose Epstein and Charles Moothart) briefly served the audience some off-the-cuff covers of classic David Bowie songs ("Ziggy Stardust," "Suffragette City," and "Queen Bitch"). The quintessential rock tunes got a less than one-minute Segall treatment of, well, basically however much of each song he could semi-remember at that time. Segall’s performance that night just happened to coincide with Mayor Emanuel’s declaration that September 23 was David Bowie Day in Chicago. “Happy David Bowie Day everyone,” Segall punctuated after each song. The energetic but slipshod homage was an appropriate tip of the hat from a well-documented Bowie freak. Now, after the legendary singer’s recent passing, Emotional Mugger is a pertinent reminder of Ty Segall’s ADHD-riddled devotion to The Thin White Duke.
This isn’t to say Segall’s latest album is a Ziggy sound-alike. In a 2013 interview via the French music website The Drone, he explains his obsession with garage rock at an early age. “The only flaw of garage rock,” he mentions, “is the repetition.” Over the course of his insistent stream of studio albums, Segall has proven that he’s serious about that claim. With Emotional Mugger, he takes Bowie’s credence in shape shifting and, on first listen, gives us his strangest album to date.
The record is a true solo affair with Segall enlisting help from his usual glam pack (Mikal Cronin, Charles Moothart, Cory Hanson) as well as an assembly of fresh weirdoes (King Tuff and [oh man I hope it’s not the last time] Dale Crover.) The relatively straightforward presentation of Twins and Manipulator are all but absent, as are the caffeine-induced rave-ups of Slaughterhouse. Instead, Segall sends these compositions through the wringer of studio manipulation. Blown-out guitar lines fly around strange synth garbles; a guitar in the first verse becomes a piano in the next. The deliberateness lends itself to a fantastic headphones album that doesn’t reveal all of the tricks at the outset.
“Squealer” sets this tone; opening with a distant sound of shoes walking up stairs, the shuffling of keys and the opening of a door. From that moment, you’ve stumbled into a strange world of drugged-out psych guitar and ominous references to babies and candy. The songs function best when taken as a whole. “Squealer,” “California Hills,” “Emotional Mugger/Leopard Priestess” and “Breakfast Eggs” are the most bizarre grouping and kick off the record to separate the wheat from the chaff. Dale Crover propels a behemoth fuzz cover of The Equals’ song “Diversion” before the record settles into more urgent rock territory. “Baby Big Man (I Want a Mommy),” “Mandy Cream” and “Candy Sam” are all first-rate Segall cuts that merge his immediate tendencies with the unconventional approach of the album. “Mandy Cream” in particular boasts a great funk-groove over a soulful vocal snarl cribbed from the Lennon playbook.
I’m hesitant to read into to the lyrical content on any Ty Segall record, but it begs to be addressed on Emotional Mugger. Generally, I tend to think that his lyrics are informed by the tone of the songs rather than the other way around. But the cryptic allusions to babies occur in virtually every song, (candy, squealing, mommies, daddies, milk, teething) and if the record is about confusion and coming of age, the chaotic traits definitely mirror these notions. Maybe it references the fleeting satisfaction of mainstream society; maybe it’s just supposed to be fun and peculiar. Whatever the case, it’s an intriguing package that demands repeated listens.
With Emotional Mugger, Ty Segall gives the ultimate David Bowie adulation by crafting an expansive world replete with unique characters and genre defying compositions. Maybe it doesn’t approach the sophistication of David Bowie’s classic arrangements, but with his latest release, Segall shows he has a headful of ideas spilling out of the garage and onto the driveway. It’s a critical step in his career and one of his best albums to date. Who knows where he’s going from here, but I promise you, it won’t be boring.