Ty Segall is often described as “prolific,” which begs the question: If he took a little more time to make records, would they be better? Manipulator answers with a resounding “yes.” In 2012, the jumbled Twins failed to measure up to its superior predecessor Goodbye Bread, and then Segall dove into a series of genre exercises. With the Ty Segall Band (some of its members appear on Manipulator, though the album is attributed to Segall solo), the raucous but redundant Slaughterhouse sounded enough like a guitar-effects demonstration that someone named a pedal after its closing track. The title track on 2013′s Sleeper is a fantastic ballad; sequenced first, it makes the other songs sound like prototypes. The proto-metal beholden Fuzz, while not strictly his band, suggested that Segall had resigned himself to pastiche.
Manipulator, released a year after Sleeper, reinstates the upward trajectory that sputtered out after Goodbye Bread. “The Singer” is one of Segall’s best songs. Yearning strings (arranged by pal Mikal Cronin) announce its exalted chorus, which ends curtly in the beginning and blooms wider with each repetition, and a sparse but writhing guitar solo closes the track out. On many solos here, Segall makes the refreshing decision to foreground clean guitar notes, sharpening the focus on his technique and physical handling of the instrument, rather than saturated tone.
There are intermittent rave-ups (notably the wily, unhinged “It’s Over”), but Manipulator‘s lean grooves carry the most rewarding songs. “The Clock” is alternately galloping and expansive as Segall ponders time, while wet synth tones and a tough mid-tempo beat reflect the menacing character alluded to in “The Connection Man.” “Mister Main” inverts Segall’s conventional instrumentation with busily syncopated drums and restrained guitars, only to disrupt its own reverie with a lone, resonant piano chord halfway through. Perhaps owing to newfound confidence, Segall is more inclined than ever to request our careful attention. Manipulator‘s details are fine rewards.
Lyrically, Segall still leans on psychedelic clichés, but Manipulator‘s dominant theme is the symbolic man. There’s the “tall man” (“Tall Man, Skinny Lady”), “The Singer,” “the boss man” (“The Faker”), and so on. They suggest veiled commentary on Segall’s immersion in the music industry, but the points are hard to sift out. Still, Segall’s character sketches have a pleasing glam-rock theatricality all their own. Segall’s voluble output once made him seem overly eager to please, but patience has yielded what listeners desired most: his best album to date.