Emotional Mugger is the kind of record you want to love. It’s the kind of record you want to be so much better than it really is.
And who could blame you for wanting such a thing? It’s easy to love Ty Segall. He’s the friendliest guitar hero alive, having ascended to underground superstardom without losing his punk credibility or gaining an obvious ego. We can root for him, we can bet on his rapid and consistently excellent output year after year. Such realities are what make Emotional Mugger such a hard pill to swallow, as the record does the incomprehensible: disappoint.
It doesn’t start that way. The album roars out of the gate with force and finesse, only to lose its head before the halfway mark and stumble to the end. There are a few moments of devilish enjoyment (“Mandy Cream”) on the back half, but the best two songs are the first two songs, and then it’s all downhill from there.
Good news first: album opener “Squealer” is a squelchy bass-in-your-face joyride, promising further pyrotechnics as it closes. “California Hills” stands head and shoulders above every other track on the album, Segall’s delightfully scatterbrained guitarwork hitting top form and staying there at every twisted turn. It’s also the only track that threatens to dazzle the listener, while the rest choose self-assured over shocking, spectacular, or even memorable.
Occasionally, self-assured morphs into self-obsessed. Take “W.U.O.T.W.S.,” which is three straight minutes of Segall trying to find a signal on his radio and encountering a few seconds of a Hendrix-esque riff and some feedback-slathered clips of previous songs. It’s practically unlistenable, and serves as a baffling segue into album finale “Magazine,” a halfway decent midtempo song left dangling without fireworks or closure by its placement within the tracklist.
Add the two overarching themes – babies and candy – and the whole thing starts to feel like a bizarre, unfunny joke. It’s not clear which aspects are intentional and which are accidental, but the literal infantilizing of the record scans as distracting rather than unifying. Segall never decides between lo-fi or sophisticated production, and switches back and forth more than once. Whereas 2014’s glam rock-influenced Manipulator played like a fully realized project, Emotional Mugger languishes in its own misdirection, lacking the clear-eyed purpose and sequin-lined confidence of its predecessor.
To his credit, Segall understands his own precarious position. Ten albums into his career, he has become immediately associated with the specific sound he spent his twenties developing, sharpening, and relentlessly touring. And to neglect pushing the boundaries of that sound as he pushes thirty would have been the greater disappointment.
Therein lies the most forgivable element of Emotional Mugger. The record crawls towards unfamiliar territory, even if it doesn’t make a sturdy home once there. But at least he tries. He claws his way out of his own mold, twists his songwriting into shapes only vaguely familiar. He enlists his super talented friends (Charles Mootheart, King Tuff, Mikal Cronin, Dale Crover, and No Age producer F. Bermudez) to help it come together. He freaks out his listeners, casts a grim atmosphere over each song, and forces himself to confront his own lasting trademarks.
If only it translated better. Segall has lost the plot amid the cacophony, chaos and childish concept. The novelty wears off, but the evidence of a wholehearted effort remains, even if the final product leaves something to be desired.