Blake Mills is something of a musical enigma. But that enigmatic status isn’t something driven by the artist himself, more by his honest approach to writing, performing and producing music. At every turn there is a seeming anomaly. Relatively unknown by the public, but heralded by fellow musicians, a virtuoso guitarist whose guitar playing is restrained and subtle, a writer of great pop songs that never reach the radio airwaves. It’s a mystery that says more about the music industry than the artist, who is doing beautiful things away from the limelight and expectation of mainstream success. There are perhaps some parallels with Jonathan Wilson, another Californian super-talent who spent years producing and playing with others before people finally clocked onto his solo talents in recent times.
It may have turned out differently if Mills had continued with Simon Dawes, the band he formed with Taylor Goldsmith and which later became Dawes on Mills’s departure. While Dawes steadily grow in popularity with each album of well crafted Americana, Mills has spent time playing as a session musician, producing others and quietly working on his sophomore solo album, Heigh Ho. The first, Break Mirrors, was a limited release that went relatively critically unnoticed but featured flashes of Mills’s burgeoning talents, as well as showcasing the songwriter’s gift for a tune (Hey Lover was later covered by Dawes, who turned it into something of a joyful pop anthem).
There is an organic magic in the music of Mills that is hard to quantify – if you try to pin it down it slips away like so much smoke in your palm. Rarely does the guitar work on Heigh Ho scream from the rooftops, but it’s impressive at every turn. Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, as Dylan might have said. The bluesy guitar craft on Seven is a beautiful thing, referential but fresh. Album opener If I’m Unworthy features a guitar part of such unholy brilliance that it feels like you’re listening to a new instrument being played, yet in a sense it’s almost unnoticeable against the overall beauty of the song. On first blast, Heigh Ho conjures up some strange sense of familiarity, and it’s not even really musical. It’s a little bit like listening to Pet Sounds for the first time, everything feels familiar, but completely different. Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me is a wonderful confessional that is so rooted in Laurel Canyon’s songwriting spirit that it can’t help but raise a smile. “I know I fucked up…” sings Mills, while any listener can only find conclusively to the contrary. Rooted in blues and jazz, Mills’s style is varied and sprightly. Genres are mere starting points from which Mills forms his own sound.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mills gets on as a solo performer and whether his talent and fascinating songcraft begin to build up the following they deserve. Certainly he doesn’t make the kind of music that usually gets noticed in the UK, but hopefully this tour will be the start of a more widespread recognition of the songwriter. If not, you get the sense that Mills simply loves the process of making and performing music and that nothing will stop that. With magic this potent at his fingertips, surely it’s only a matter of time before everyone falls under his spell?