New Deal/Verve Records
It’s important to find your solace in something. Especially these days when everywhere you look the news about what is happening in the world is troubling, painful and anger inducing. The little moments we can find that are uplifting are sometimes the only things that can keep us all going throughout the day. On his latest album, Mutable Set, producer, musician and song writer Blake Mills takes his time to address the issues that plague our world and in doing so has also made space for us to find some comfort. Mills, who has produced and played with such diverse and acclaimed artists as Fiona Apple, Perfume Genius, Conor Oberst, Dawes, and John Legend among many more, employs a naturalistic approach on Mutation Set that is at once hypnotic, dreamy and delicately sobering. Tackling issues from climate change to isolation, Mills presents the world as it is, his songs a gentle reminder that in this despair, glimmers of hope do appear.
Mutable Set isn’t the flashiest record you will hear this year. The songs speak plainly for themselves highlighted by Mills fragile, honey dipped soulful vocals. Fingerpicked guitars and gentle piano elegantly play off each other and within the copious amount of space that these tomes inhabit. Album opener “Never Forever” quickly and quietly set the tone for what is to follow. Beginning with an slight synth pattern that feels to go on for an alarmingly amount of time before Mill’s guitar sets the track into motion. It’s here that the listener can practically sink into the proceedings. Mill’s voice tenderly pushes the song along, small flourishes, an extra beat at the end of a bar here, an intriguing harmony there, add a complexity that is never show off-y. The waltz pattern of “May Later” recalls the emotional texture of Elliott Smith but Mills adds some jazzier elements, such as a acrobatic melodic embellishment scattered throughout, that make it all completely his own. Accompanying Mills here is a murderers row of players such as Aaron Embry on keys (Elliot Smith, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), Sam Gendel on saxophone (Vampire Weekend, Moses Sumney), Rob Moose on strings (Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver) Abe Rounds (Meshell Ndegocello, Andrew Bird) on drums and Pino Palladino (The Who, D’Angelo) on bass. Even though they all have the requisite background to crush any track they deem to play on, Mills and his crew are subtle and use the space between the notes more than the notes they are playing to add the required tension. Album highlight “Summer All Over”, about the climate crisis Mills has directly seen growing up in Los Angeles and dealing with wildfires and the destruction those have caused, is a haunting and mournful elegy played to a future generation that may not know any other season. These are heavy themes and while they are all played seriously, the beauty that Mills instills in these songs is the levity needed that dissuades these tracks from ever becoming preachy.
Blake Mills has had his fair share of success through working with other artists but it’s through his work here on Mutable Set that show us his success is because he clearly has the chops as an artist in his own right. The collection of songs here are stark, elegant and sprinkled with the right amount of melancholy. A melancholy that doesn’t weigh the proceedings down but does allow us to sink into the album’s minor chord texture and find some solace swimming within it.
review by Adam Fink
Mutation Set by Blake Mills comes out on May 8, via Verve/New Deal Records