California’s garage-rock wunderkind grows up, spectacularly
Ty Segall has absolutely, once and for all, had it with the whole ‘prolific’ thing. “You know, I really dislike it,” he tells Uncut. “People used to always bring it up, but that was never my goal.”
While, let’s be honest, he only has himself to blame, he hasn’t ever intentionally tried for a record-breaking release schedule like King Gizzard. For Segall, it’s much simpler: the artists that have been important to him – from The Beatles, Black Sabbath, The Kinks, T.Rex and the Grateful Dead to Billy Childish, The Gories and his early mentors Thee Oh Sees – made a lot of records, and so he did too. 2012 was probably the peak of his productivity, a couple of years after he burst into wider view from the San Francisco garage scene: there was the lo-fi psychedelia of his White Fence collaboration, Hair, then the fuzz onslaught of Slaughterhouse with the Ty Segall Band, and finally his sludge-pop solo album Twins. Since then he’s kept up a steady stream of at least an album or two a year, if you take in side-projects, soundtracks, covers records and live LPs. Some of them – the madman – have been doubles.
Three Bells, however, is different. It might not immediately appear to be so, as Segall only released the acoustic “Hello, Hi” in summer 2022 and the sleek, machine-tooled Harmonizer in 2021. Yet those albums were recorded in 2020 and 2021, which has allowed Segall to spend almost two years on this mammoth 65-minute record. “I thought, you know what, maybe I should really take some more time,” he explains. “Because why not? So Three Bells was me stretching out.”
He’s made double albums before, including 2018’s incredible stylistic smorgasbord Freedom’s Goblin and the patchier, glammy Manipulator (2014); but none have been as cohesive or singularly strong as Three Bells. This is an album that sounds like it’s had time spent on it. It’s brilliantly recorded, pristine and perfectly imperfect. Usually, there’s a freewheeling momentum – a labrador-ish enthusiasm to match his golden mane – coursing through his albums, a good vibe that carries us through any out-there detours; but instead there’s a measured quality to Three Bells that’s not often to be found in Segall’s records. These are painstakingly crafted songs, carefully pieced together.
There’s a radical jump-cut between the disturbing “Eggman” and the infectious “My Room”, but wild juxtapositions are not something Segall does a lot of on Three Bells. Instead, a gentle compromise between styles is the guiding principle. Segall normally heads for extremes and stays there – when he makes a noisy record he turns his Death By Audio Fuzz War pedal up full, and when he goes acoustic, he keeps it quiet – but Three Bells mixes these two styles for the most part, pairing acoustic guitars with fuzzed lead parts and crisp drums and bass. Segall mentions the influence of Love’s Forever Changes to Uncut, and there’s certainly a similarity in the textures – the fingerpicked acoustics and coruscating leads on the opening “The Bell” aren’t far from those to be found on “Live And Let Live” or “A House Is Not A Motel”. The second half of “Void”, meanwhile, takes these ingredients and comes up with something closer to the way early ’70s Bowie would combine his strummed acoustic and Mick Ronson’s cocked-wah Les Paul lines.
Segall’s a Funkadelic nut, and there’s a subtle, welcoming groove to many of these songs, especially on the first side. “I Hear” struts like something from Led Zeppelin’s Presence, while “Hi Dee Dee” is closer to the reptilian disco of latter-day Queens Of The Stone Age, all harmonised guitars and falsetto vocals. “You’ll play the bass/And bring it down,” he sings, as if commenting on the music itself. “I’ll take it up…”
While the main single “My Room” is the catchiest Segall song since 2018’s “Fanny Dog”, he’s not gone AOR yet: there’s plenty of weirdness here. Side Three’s “Repetition” is a slouching slice of curdled country funk gone wrong, with strange bursts of noise crossing the stereo spectrum and Segall’s acoustic hitting discordant notes; it’s a little like something from Harvest left out to wither and warp in the sun. Next up, “To You” is a ragged punk song with acoustic guitars, spiky electric piano and Mellotron replacing electric guitars – “the space between us/Is just distance,” Segall croons. It changes into a kind of spectral, skeletal post-punk for its second half, a two-part trick that “Void” shares.
The strangest thing here is “Eggman”, co-written with his wife Denée Segall and released with customary perversity as the album’s second single. In its chromatic chord changes, garbled-tape tempo shifts, icky lyrics and free-form noise coda, it’s a throwback to 2016’s divisive Emotional Mugger days, when a theatrically minded Segall wore a baby mask onstage and – taking the concept to its limit, naturally – begged KEXP DJ Cheryl Waters to be his “mommy” during a live session. Its playground stomp eventually fades out to be replaced by a screaming, free-form noise coda.
Three Bells, however, is at its best when Segall spreads out and loosens up: “Reflections” swims gorgeously in “Dear Prudence” arpeggio spirals, Segall’s guitar saturated in Eventide phaser as he floats deep inside his psyche and invites the listener to come and explore too – “you can get to know the places inside you…” “Watcher” is another of Segall’s Bolan fantasies (remember he’s released a whole T.Rex covers record to prove his fandom), hallucinatory and withdrawn as the singer inhabits the titular character. Another highlight is “Denée”, a six-minute hymn to his wife (who sings lead on “Move” and co-wrote five songs here) in which the only repeated lyric is her name. “Talk about going deep,” Segall tells us, “that’s about as deep as you can go.” No sun-dappled fingerpicked love song, though, this is rather a jazz-rock workout with a potent scent of Zappa; driven by electric piano, bass and drums, its tonal centre shifts and modulates as Segall clings to the one thing that keeps him centred. Rather like “Revolution 9” is followed by “Good Night” on ‘The White Album’, this outré jam is followed by the short, closing lullaby “What Can We Do”.
It would be foolish to call this Segall’s best record yet, so varied and brilliant is his work so far, but it’s up there. Now in his late thirties, garage-rock’s wunderkind is growing up a little, slowing down and focusing on what’s important. Many other musicians have made a change at this age too – from Bob Dylan’s search for God to Neil Young’s embrace of the strange with Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’; 15-plus albums down the line, it’s no longer an exaggeration to place Segall in their company. Long he may run, leisurely.