Ty Segall is at his best when handling his influences roughly, riffing on a fluid but familiar set of styles while heading off into extreme, outlandish new directions. Over the past few years, those influences have shifted gradually while a certain level of looseness has remained constant, with straightforward but complex fuzz rock that never slackens in momentum, its creator never taking himself seriously.
This scattershot approach requires a confident intensity to sound anything other than sloppy, which explains the central problem with Emotional Mugger, on which the stagy evocation of peak-era glam rock fails to tap into the genre’s undertones of veiled menace and stomping sass. The music doesn’t fall victim to reverence or outright imitation, traps that might produce an entirely fossilized album, but in paying tribute to these classic gods Segall gets both goofier and more deferential than usual, undermining his usual caustic sense of mayhem.
Fixated on a few various musical and lyrical themes, but never getting close to a coherent focus, the album continues the quantity-over-quality approach favored throughout Segall’s career. But Emotional Mugger at least doesn’t double back over previously explored territory, as Segall remains less interested in fine-tuning a specific sound than endlessly experiment with new tools and attitudes.
Segall remains less interested in fine-tuning a specific sound than endlessly experiment with new tools and attitudes.
It’s also not a problem that he wears his glam influences as drag, the same way the artists he’s riffing on donned primped-up feminine costumes as transgressive indicators of reconfigured masculinity. When Segall cops a New York Dolls-style rhythm or does his own acidified version of a Marc Bolan melody, the point is no longer about pushing boundaries, it’s about taking something recognizable and making it alien again, exploiting that familiarity to supplement the pursuit of ever-more-atavistic versions of primal rock juice.
This comes off successfully about half the time. “Diversion” serves as one of the best examples, with its chunky, overpowering guitar line and centrifuged police-siren sound effects, a scratchy concluding solo completing the descent into agitated chaos. Moments like these, in which Segall truly cuts loose and ends up with something novel, work for the most part, but overall the album stays too closely in the range of its obvious influences. Rarely torrid or eccentric enough, it gets too comfortable in the first part of the equation, recreating the fertile weirdo wheelhouse of classic glam, settling for a sort of slightly reimagined, scruffed-up karaoke. Sudden bouts of no-wave abstraction break up the smoothness throughout, making for severe sledgehammer moments which disrupt the songs in exciting fashion, but these derailments end up feeling like the album’s only real trick.
The sense of faithful replication giving way to snotty impertinence and punk-inspired deconstruction comes across most completely on the final track, as the wild radio dial spins of “W.U.O.T.W.S.,” trace back over the album itself and beyond, confirming Emotional Mugger as a feverish work of digestion and regurgitation. Too much of the oddness, however, remains below board, integrated into the music in strangely subtle fashion.
Take, for example, the fact that three of the first four songs make significant mention of, or seem entirely about, candy. This connects to the persistent air of infantile neediness: women represented as gigantic, maternal or distant; needs presented as absolute and immediate; children’s voices and gibberish sounds intruding on the mix; guitar solos as lashing, petulant tantrums. In some ways Segall seems to be getting closer to a full-bore, refreshingly gratuitous satire of rock’s puerile roots by zooming in on the childish drives that fuel the form, but in approaching this idea he ends up with an album that’s only intermittently satisfying, stranded halfway toward an interesting concept.