Mutable Set

Blake Mills

Verve/UMG, 2020

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Perhaps known more for production (Alabama Shakes) and session work (Fiona Apple, Jenny Lewis), Blake Mills has stepped behind the microphone again for his fourth album, the low-key acoustic folk-driven Mutable Set.

Music is the antidote for most things, especially during a pandemic-driven quarantine, and how your mood is on a particular day will drive the music you need. For some, the righteous fury and hope of Pearl Jam’s recent Gigaton captures how one feels after watching the news or spending a half hour in a comments section on Facebook (not recommended). For others, a soothing balm like this record will restore a soul ravaged by worry and uncertainty.

Mills’ voice is warm and soothing, a cup of hot chocolate on a cold Michigan day, and his guitar playing is eclectic and understated, yet tricky as hell. It reminds one of Leo Kottke, the underrated folk guitarist of years past, but updated with a modern indie sensibility, and never stooping to “virtuoso” showoffiness. You may hear some of Mills’ influences throughout (Dylan, Wilco) but far less than on his previous albums; this is a singular vision, best experienced on headphones, in order to capture all the detail.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The album drifts instead of punches, like a dream, taking time to reflect but occasionally punching (the two-minute “Eat My Dust”). Much of this is due to Mills’ meticulous production, with not a missed note or sound and ambient washes hanging around like a fog, and vocals pushed to the front sung about half an inch from the microphone. An early highlight is the bluesy “Money Is The One True Goal,” which doesn’t vary much from that theme lyrically, but slowly builds in hypnotic intensity with sound and repetition, before ending on a plucked nylon guitar string that is miked so close you can hear Mills’ fingers on the guitar body. It’s very intimate, and maybe a little too close for comfort for some.

When Mills drifts away from more standard singer-songwriter sounds and lyrics, the album finds an individual voice, though your patience for slow chamber pop with woozy sun-drenched vocals will be tested on cuts like “Summer All Over” and “My Dear One,” while the last few songs on the album tend to blur together without distinction. Better is “Vanishing Twin,” which brings actual percussion (a first!) and strings to the party, then blends everything in a colorful haze in the long instrumental fadeout.

The slow burn and faint avant-garde-jazz crawl of “Off Grid” ends the album on a spooky note too, Mills murmuring “Make it scroll black / Gone to lay alone / Taking nicknames back / I can’t hang” and then…leaving, basically, with only a plodding instrumental march as the singer walks away – for a while, anyway – shutting everything down until the lights go out and the song abruptly ends.

Like a dream, much of Mutable Set may dissipate from memory like headlights cutting through morning fog, once you are up and facing the realities of the day. But the record seems designed this way, meant to linger, ready to welcome you into its eerie dark corners and warm hug whenever you need it. Such an balance is tough to pull off, but those who spend some time with the album will find it a welcome respite and, perhaps, an emotional companion that is needed in a difficult time.

Rating: B-

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© 2020 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Verve/UMG, and is used for informational purposes only.