Thursday, February 1, 2018

album review: 'freedom's goblin' by ty segall

At this point of Ty Segall's career I've given up on expectations. His sound in rock has careened across a half dozen different genres from lo-fi garage to more ornate psychedelic tones, with plenty of twisted sounds and ideas at the core and an uncanny knack for really great hooks... and yet I'll be honest, it's been a while since I've really loved a Ty Segall record. The closest was probably Manipulator back in 2014, but both Emotional Mugger and the self-titled record last year felt lyrically undercooked and the cohesion was starting to slip too. It didn't mean he couldn't put together good individual tracks, but given that he was now facing some serious competition in the garage rock space for me in Ron Gallo, I wanted to hear Ty Segall push a little harder.

And to my amazement I think he might have stepped up with something, as Freedom's Goblin was a nineteen track double album, clocking around seventy-five minutes that reportedly sprayed its stylistic influences even further afield. Which yes, was concerning given the cohesion issues on the self-titled release, but there was nothing saying he couldn't tie it all together and when you consider that he somehow got Steve Albini back to co-produce parts of this, it did feel like a vote of confidence - Albini doesn't work with slouches, at least not more than once. Still, I was wary about a double album coming here, but this could be something special, and with a little more runtime maybe Segall could really flesh out a solid set of lyrical ideas, so how is Freedom's Goblin?

Honestly, it was tough to tell. It's hard to doubt Ty Segall's ambition with Freedom's Goblin and the more I sat with it the more I thought I should like this a fair bit... but I've been struggling with it and my quandary with that is if that's rooted in my preference for his older, rougher sounds or issues with this record specifically. And thus, after giving this hour-plus record another few listens... honestly, some of both. I wouldn't chart this among my favourites from Ty Segall, but I think I understand it a little better, and I can appreciate the weirder choices made here.

So let's start with those, shall we, because right from the opening track you get the feeling something is oddly amiss. The garage rock fuzzed-out riffs are there, as is most of Ty Segall's nasal drawl, but now there's horns and a feeling that the overall mix is sharper and cleaner, especially in the vocal pickup. And if you're expecting this record to adhere to any sort of consistent throughline when it comes to sound, Freedom's Goblin is there to shatter your expectations, because on the very next song the groove trembles and lumbers forward on pianos, blaring horns, and vocal overdubs that remind me more of a Muse song than anything else - and a song later we've got a garage rock cover of a Hot Chocolate song from the late 70s, who were an English soul band! And that highlights the careening dichotomies of this album: the gurgling, nightmarish funk of 'Despoiler of Cadaver' with that massive bassline contrasting with the smoother, borderline acoustic soft rock of songs like 'Cry Cry Cry' and 'I'm Free', the hardcore scuzz of 'Meaning' featuring Segall's wife Denee on lead vocals in a track that's borderline riot grrl not far removed from the Beatles-esque overdubs on 'My Lady's On Fire'. And in the most stark example, we have the garish, piano-inflected 'The Last Waltz' that breaks into the grinding shred of 'She', which probably owes most of its hallmarks to early metal and only really has any connective tissue in the keyboard lines.

Now here's the thing: more often than not Segall sticks the landing with his genre experimentation: he can still write one hell of a melody line that'll always have prominence in some form, and his stabs at funk and disco on 'Despoiler Of Cadaver' or soft rock on 'I'm Free' or even the sleaziest form of sax-inflected glam on 'The Main Pretender' are just as compelling as his more 'conventional' garage stomp of 'Shoot You Up' and '5 Ft. Tall'. And while the closing remake of his old song 'Sleeper' as a twelve-minute, sinuous monster of garage rock in 'And, Goodnight' can drag a bit, it still has much of the texture and melodic tone that made Segall so compelling. And it's a damn shame that greater sense of dynamics just doesn't come through on this album in the same way in the production. Some of this I will tack up to the extremely clean vocal pickups - yes, it highlights how Segall's falsetto has improved on 'You Say All The Nice Things', but when you have buzzed out chunks of riff and gurgling bass that picks up more texture, it doesn't quite feel as cohesive. And that's the case with much of the larger mix as well, where it seems like the cleaner, overdubbed focus didn't let the garage rock elements bleed into a noisier but more cohesive tone, which means the more slapdash elements don't really have the cover to slide past. And that becomes an issue when you have so many guitar and horn phrases that could use that thicker mix, or at the very least a more consistent low-end foundation for the more jagged elements. And as much as I might like solos on songs like 'Fanny Dog' and 'Alta' and 'You Say All The Nice Things' and 'I'm Free', it's hard to deny there aren't moments of indulgence like the scuzzed out pileup of an interlude on 'Prison', which somehow gets even worse with the horns on 'Talking 3'.

But again, if only by volume there are more better songs that duds here, at least in the composition... which takes us to the writing. And look, I'm not going to mince words, I've always preferred Ty Segall's more developed and detailed lyrics, the guy has a knack for detail that in the past few years has really been underserved... and sadly a lot of that is the case for this record as well - and with nineteen songs running over an hour, it's not like he was short on space! Now what it also means is that tracing any particular theme becomes tricky, especially as you can tell Segall is delighting in throwing curveballs - 'Fanny Dog' could be interpreted as brazenly sexual... until you realize he's talking about his actual dog, and 'Alta' is a surprisingly earnest tune about preserving the environment that could well play as a love song. But if I was to sketch a theme, it'd circle back to that question of freedom... and the consequences that total freedom could bring. And it helps that Segall has always been canny in his framing, not afraid to paint himself as craven or ugly as anyone else - which is probably the best thing he could have done on an album chock-full of pre-, during, and post-breakups, and that's before you remember his estrangement from his mother to add a twisted Oedipal angle to songs like 'When Mommy Kills You'. And none of the conclusions that Segall finds surrounding 'freedom' are especially pretty - when asked to prop up archaic systems on 'Meaning', Denee screams through their flimsy justifications... but there's a feral side to total freedom that manifests on 'Despoiler of Cadaver' and 'Shoot You Up', or the apocalyptic derangement of 'The Last Waltz'. What becomes apparent is that when many crave freedom from relationships or toxic people they want to use it to avoid consequences or self-reflection, but when you have that freedom, there's nowhere else to turn but inwards - and with so many relationships in codependent, slow-motion destruction without that reflection, you get songs like 'Rain' and 'My Lady's On Fire' or 'Cry Cry Cry', where there won't be any turning back. But considering how triumphant songs like 'I'm Free' and '5 Ft. Tall' feel, maybe that's for the best after all.

But as a whole... I can see some Ty Segall fans thinking this is a tough record to process, it sure as hell was for me, especially as there are big ideas at play and solid melodic compositions but not always executed in the best way. I appreciate how an album like this opens up a lot of doors for Segall going forward, but it's hard not to feel like I'd appreciate this more if a little more time was given to production and writing with more detail - this doesn't feel nearly as undercooked as his self-titled record last year, but I'm attributing more of that to talent than time spent in refinement. And thus for me, it's a solid 7/10 and a recommendation - you could certainly do worse in this brand of indie rock than what Ty Segall brings to the table and he can execute his ideas, but ironically the title might as well refer to the record itself - free to go in any direction, yet with a cost that keeps it shy of greatness. 

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