Blake Mills is the go-to producer and musical shaman at the moment, but he’s so much more than that. His 2014 record Heigh Ho proved as much, giving us sardonic and breezy songs about life and messing up and falling in love and disappointing those around us. It brought to mind folks like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and even bits of Tom Petty. But that was just the beginning. The jumping off point, if you will. After releasing the instrumental and ambient Look in 2018 Mills returns with the sparse and exquisite Mutable Set. A nearly hour’s journey and 11 tracks of gentle, acoustic-led tracks that go from ethereal to heartbreaking.
Listening to Mutable Set I imagine Blake Mills is signed to Reprise Records. It’s 1973 and he’s working with Lenny Waronker in the studio. Having drinks with Randy Newman, trying to keep up with Harry Nilsson, and showing Ry Cooder the chord changes in the bridge. Then all of a sudden I’m back in 2020. It’s like Blake Mills recorded a bunch of songs alone on a space station a million miles from anyone. There’s a shadow of solitude that hangs over this record, which adds a touch of urgency.
Opener “Never Forever” sneaks up on you slowly. It’s this oddly put together song that opens with electronic tones. It seems to bloom before your ears as guitar strings are plucked, which reveal a sweet melody. When Blake Mills starts singing he sounds like a laid back Nilsson. The guitar melds with percussive moments into an intricate rhythm. Then we step into the gorgeous “May Later”, a sort of far out pop piece that brings to mind Adrian Belew from Mr. Musichead. This is a near perfect coming together of art, production, and soul. It’s the kind of track you can listen to over and over and never tire of. Maybe this is experimental pop. Whatever it is, I’m in. Another absolutely gorgeous track is “Summer All Over”. Mills’ voice sounds as if he’s singing it quietly right into your ear, as if he’s sharing a new song with you in the living room but doesn’t want to wake anyone. There’s such a personal, intimate feel here.
Elsewhere, “Eat My Dust” is very reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle with fingerpicking and ethereal, out-of-the-box songwriting. Buckingham is a real sonic touchstone throughout, as Mills takes the folks-y skeletons of his tracks and ornaments them with deft, sonic touches. Another highlight is the exquisite “Vanishing Twin”. Musically it seems to blend together both the ambient spirit of Mark Isham, the dark pop of The Motels, and the lyrical power of Elliot Smith. The guitar towards the end puts me in mind of some of Wilco’s darker folk from A Ghost Is Born. It’s simply constructed but hits hard on a very visceral level.
Mutable Set is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a very long time. From start to finish it builds a beautifully odd world to get lost in. As far as singer/songwriter records go, it’s up there with the best. But Blake Mills isn’t just another singer/songwriter. He paints songs in obscure hues and eccentricities. It’s a dark pop record, but without being a bummer. Songs written in outer space, with a flair for earthbound emotions.
9.2 out of 10