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Blake Mills - Mutable Set Music Album Reviews

On his fourth album, the expert producer comes into his own as a solo artist with a hushed, finely tuned album that showcases his unassuming voice and impeccable songcraft.

Blake Mills is a virtuoso guitarist who can’t stand the typical trappings of the phrase “virtuoso guitarist.” Even though his playing has earned him praise from boomer rock icons like Eric Clapton and Jackson Browne, the 33-year-old’s style is understated and eclectic, always in service of the song, not the ego. In his 20s, he caught the ear of Los Angeles’ songwriter intelligentsia, playing with the likes of Jenny Lewis and Fiona Apple, becoming the guy keen artists turned to when they wanted to add a layer of striking, yet subtle, musicality to their work.
He could have spent his career as a secret-weapon guitarist, but he pivoted to solo work and production; his debut, 2010’s twangy Break Mirrors, doubled as a calling card that showed off his humble, affecting voice and burgeoning skills behind the boards. After producing albums for Alabama Shakes and Perfume Genius that redefined those artists’ sounds, he is now the clearest successor to turn-of-the-century studio sophisticate Jon Brion. And he brings all of that know-how, experience, and taste to his fourth LP, Mutable Set, a hushed collection that floats through the subconscious like a tender dream.
Mills’ first two solo records were largely made up of country-rock tales of wounded love, sung by a rootsy obsessive who had seemingly spent thousands of hours commiserating with Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, and Wilco’s Summerteeth. They contained moments of brilliance, like the disarming and plainspoken “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” a duet with Apple from 2014’s Heigh Ho, but they could also be too referential, like a graduate paper stuffed with citations yet lacking in original ideas.

With Look, from 2018, he decided to remake his own sound. That album revolved around Mills’ experiments with vintage guitar synthesizers, and featured five wordless tracks that brood and flutter with the widescreen grandeur of a Terrence Malick movie. Mutable Set splits the difference between Mills’ two sides—the unassuming singer and the ambient wanderer. It’s song-based, but it’s not just another singer-songwriter record. Its arrangements are slippery, and it’s often hard to tell if what you’re hearing is a keyboard, a guitar, a saxophone, or something else entirely. It’s never clear exactly where this album will go next, but there’s no doubt an expert hand is guiding the way.

Opener “Never Forever” starts where Look left off, slowly amassing a fog of tones for more than two minutes before Mills starts to sing atop a soothing fingerpicked figure. The song points out how modern human connection is so often thwarted by a society hellbent on wasting our time with the mundane, but its touch is featherlight. Here, the Southern California native trades in the drawl he used on past albums for a shrugging murmur that can recall L.A. ambassadors Randy Newman and Elliott Smith. Mills’ musings are more intriguing, and more oblique, than before too. Perhaps this is because he wrote about half of Mutable Set, including “Never Forever,” with Cass McCombs, who’s spent nearly two decades making sidelong folk-rock that always avoids the obvious. Throughout the album, the pair prove to be wonderfully complementary lyricists, with McCombs’ dark poeticism adding another dimension to Mills’ folksy groundedness. Another Mills/McCombs composition, the stunning ballad “My Dear One,” mixes the comfort of lasting companionship with existential dread. “My dear one, shelter my heart,” Mills sings, sweetly, over a lush backdrop. Then the arrangement suddenly empties, leaving only an unsettling dissonance, a lonely heartbeat thump, and a nagging creak. As the song draws to a close, Mills repeats, “The sky has grown dark.” The effect is ominous, bringing to mind a dinghy in the middle of a vast sea, with the worst still to come.

Such vivid images of loss—“a bedroom with a bed that isn’t there anymore,” fish flopping on a beach ravaged by climate change—are in concert with the album’s equally spare and tactile production. Mutable Set pours out of the speakers. It unfurls like lilies in a garden. The album was mainly recorded at L.A.’s famed Sound City Studios, where everyone from Neil Young to Nirvana cut classics, and Mills tunes it for maximum intimacy. Every bass pluck and keyboard wash, every acoustic guitar chord and string flourish is rendered with loving clarity. But Mills isn’t aiming for air-tight perfection. There are little choices, like how you can sometimes hear the moving parts of a piano chugging or fingers squeaking over guitar frets, that accentuate the overall sense of living, breathing humanity. And though Mills may not be the most naturally arresting singer, the way his somber croon sits in the mix, as if his mouth is inches from your ear, makes these mostly drumless tracks feel both eerie and reassuring.

Aside from the haunting instrumental “Mirror Box,” which sounds like something Nina Simone could have sung over, the album’s only real guitar spotlight comes at the end of the six-minute centerpiece “Vanishing Twin.” As the shadowy track builds from a whisper to a rumble, Mills stops singing about a flickering doppelganger, and his guitar slowly fills the void. He proceeds to let loose a stream of feedback and mangled notes, as trilling strings prettify the air around his signal. It’s a melted solo, abstract in its power. At points, it barely sounds like a guitar at all.

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