Ty Segall and White Fence – Joy: “A diversity of new territories”
Joy opens with a crescendo of noise which gives way to two voices singing out of step. They speak of a shared perception: “We see oceans baby blue”. But these voices sound warped, disembodied, wrong. Then, unison; the voices sing together and their ailment is cured, flowering in audacious harmony. Auditory metaphors are not common in the music of Ty Segall nor White Fence’s Tim Presley, but this opening passage nicely symbolises their hybrid relationship on Joy. This is their second outing as a duo following 2012’s Hair, though Segall also produced White Fence’s For The Recently Found Innocent in 2014, but never have they sounded more in sync. Here, with both co-writing each song, they combine and elaborate upon each’s solo style – Segalls’s buzzsaw-blues garage-rock and Presley’s bedroom garage-psych – with such a seamless fusion that one’s imprint becomes virtually indistinguishable from the other. Emboldened by the joy of working with a kindred collaborator, they confidently explore a diversity of new territories, the best of which are grounded in the classic styles of the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd. Some of Presley and Segall’s most earnest song-writing is here, as well as the most bizarre.
Presley and Segall’s voices, always similar in their aping of the English repose of Bowie, Bolan, and Barrett, tend closer together than ever and are the fulcrum of these tracks. It’s often hard to tell who’s singing, but the extent of the duo’s symbiosis suggests that doesn’t matter too much. First track proper ‘Please Don’t Leave This Town’ sets the tone, with lyrics about the vague and vaguely ominous – a grim inevitability involving children and something underground. The narrators urge us to leave, but the title invites us to stay. This is classic Segall imagery, blending the surreal with a hint of malice – his taste for which is evident just from his album covers (Freedom’s Goblin, Emotional Mugger, Melted). After an opening verse we hurry into a guitar solo which squeals over a psychedelic bed of acoustic guitar arpeggios (that’s Presley’s influence). ‘Body Behaviour’ also alludes to a disturbing tale and pits an acoustic against a gnarly guitar solo, which this time sounds like falling through a vortex of distortion. “Did you see yourself turning?” they ask as they imagine your body ceasing to act as if it were your own. But although images of blue skies turning black hint at a horror movie transfiguration, the real scare is that it is consumerism which has denuded you of volition and personality, heading to the mall like a rat to a sewer “standing in line but not knowing at all”. This condescending jab at society withers under inspection, but in real-time it is well-hidden and well-paired with a foreboding chord progression that proceeds with real menace.
‘Good Boy’ kicks like ‘Bungalow Bill’, even incorporating drastic tempo changes between verse and chorus. In fact, there is a touch of the White Album more generally to Joy, broadly sharing its stylistic diversity, instrumentation, and dry production. And the Beatles’ references get more brazen on ‘Hey Joel, Where You Going With That?’ and its invocation of a “Yellow Sandwich Submarine”. After 90 seconds the track descends into an amusing farce, and the duo return again to the White Album to channel ‘(Wild) Honey Pie’ – though to criticise a psychedelic rock band for sailing too close to White Album would be sacrilege. Plus it’s an interesting track in its own right, especially for the duo’s vocal style, where they sing together but without attempting to match each other’s exact delivery, leading to a pleasant sense of disorientation, almost as if you’re being haunted by two drunk, playful ghosts. And when the song kicks into its rockier third movement, these Ghosts of Music Future tease you with that most enraging of clichés: “Rock is dead”.
These tracks, and the similar ‘Grin Without Smile’, run with the kind of garage-psych blend you might expect from Segall and Presley: oblique lyrics, a focus on riffs and solos, flourishes of expert musicianship and eyebrow-raising harmonies. But from here on, the album’s diversity kicks in. The bizarre interstitial track ‘Rock Flute’ gives way to the disarmingly honest and emotional ‘A Nod’, wherein Presley and Segall admit to crises of self-confidence. “I just want to believe in me” – an unexpected chorus for two highly-successful and lauded musicians enjoying the peak years of their careers, and particularly for artists who usually shy away from earnest song-writing, on this album as well as their others – on Segall’s last album, Freedom’s Goblin, the headline songs were ‘Fanny Dog’, an ode to the talents of his dog, and an ironic disco infiltrator named ‘Despoiler of Cadaver’. But ‘A Nod’ is classically, beautifully simple – a beat with no snare, an easily-digestible chord sequence, and the age-old structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. This removal of complexity serves to focus all attention on the lyrics. And it’s a similar story with ‘Do Your Hair’. There’s more momentum, but the Velvet Underground-style chord sequence is once again irresistibly simple, and Segall’s vocal melody is sweet. The lyrical theme is date night, and, of course, there’s a bizarre and disturbing edge – “we stole a car and ate garbage” – but there’s also a tenderness and passion we don’t often find from Segall as he recalls “I kissed you on the carpet”. The closing track again finds Segall and Presley in open emotional territory, perhaps more so than anywhere else – ‘My Friend’ opens with delicate acoustic guitar and fragile harmonies, and Presley’s chorus imagines a friend “falling down” with genuine empathy. But when he promises “I’m still around”, the music switches into major key and is propelled forwards by the entry of drums. What follows is an optimistic denouement which skirts country-rock territory, with textures redolent of mandolin, violin, and lap steel layering prettily and complexly, culminating in something that could almost be a passage from a happy Sufjan Stevens song. This instrumental section is once again a radical and earnest departure from either artist’s oeuvre. The spark between the duo has energised them to try new and interesting things.
But, perhaps to balance out these uncharacteristic moments of tenderness, these latter tracks are interspersed with the album’s most confrontational and bizarre songs. There’s ‘Other Way’, a violent noise-rock thriller that channels Dirty-era Sonic Youth, which is preceded by a recording of Segall’s dog Fanny growling. As the duo explicitly criticise right-wingers and those who “look the other way” rather than challenge them, evil distortion drenches the track like scalding water from a tap you can’t close. ‘She Is Gold’ cuts loose with chanted singing, soloistic drumming, and spindly guitars that aimlessly climb the walls, before abruptly transforming into stoner-rock for the last two minutes, Hispanic guitar ruffs battling a super-charged lead. But the weirdest is ‘Tommy’s Place’, a cut which seems right out of The Beatles’ playbook of freakish psychedelia, with lashings of Willy Wonka. In an awkward 6/8 time signature, the duo sing in comedic falsetto about a strange, heavenly place where a pitiful man’s needs are all met, so much so that he becomes engorged – “I think I’m going to pop”. A burbling synth line mimics the very sound of him swelling, and it ends with a camp “ta-dah!” Is this a wry comment on the absurdity of mindless self-indulgence? Or just two pranksters trying to freak us all out? From experience, it is surely the latter, but perhaps the lesson from Joy is that we shouldn’t tell ourselves we know what to expect from Ty Segall and White Fence anymore.