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Blake Mills - Look Music Album Reviews

The rising producer has made records with John Legend and Perfume Genius. On his new instrumental record, he expresses exquisite vulnerability at the intersection of ambient and modern classical.

Look begins with an exclamation mark, the silence broken by what sounds like a bell and a kettle drum struck simultaneously with Thor-like force. The sound hangs in space for an instant before slowly floating out like airborne debris from an explosion, captured in high-definition video and played back at a glacial pace. It unfurls into a drone, swaddled by soprano vocals and supported by electronics that groan like tectonic plates. For nearly eight minutes, “One” lingers here, seesawing between seraphic majesty and geologic force as digital curlicues and aerated guitars fade in and out of the background. Somewhere between Arvo Pärt and Sigur Rós, it marks a tremendous introduction to a surprising new voice at the intersection of sound design, chamber music, and post-rock: Blake Mills, a young star of the Americana-adjacent record-producing orbit with an audacious and personal approach to sound.

The clatter that launches Look is a requisite line in the sand, a jolting notice that this music is nothing like that of Mills’ past. A little more than a decade ago, Mills split from the band that would become Dawes, the country-rock stars who are now the proverbial creek cutting through the bottom of Laurel Canyon. Since then, he has steadily ascended to the rank of top-shelf session musician, having played with the likes of the Avett Brothers, Norah Jones, and Lucinda Williams. He’s also released two stunning albums that have tested the edges of what might be called millennial folk, his wide-eyed musical vision informing songs that still feel like homestead confessionals. Most notable, though, is his emergence as a top-notch producer: Nominated twice since 2015 for the producer-of-the-year Grammy, he has helmed records by Perfume Genius, Alabama Shakes, and John Legend. And he seems only to be getting started: “I think the questions I was asking made him suspicious of whether the record was done,” he recently told Pitchfork—about 4:44, after JAY-Z himself asked for his input.

But Look is a world away from the Carters or the Avetts; in fact, it’s a miniature world unto its own. For these five mesmerizing tracks, Mills began experimenting with 1970s guitar synthesizers, intricate systems that allow guitarists to alter their basic input infinitely and create, say, a choir or drone where there once had been a strum or a chord. These were private experiments with a technology he had once written off, but, as his amusement sublimated into infatuation, he began recruiting collaborators to help shape these pieces: experimental saxophonist Sam Gendel, hypnotic Weyes Blood singer Natalie Mering, hyper-collaborative violinist Rob Moose. Together, the ensemble built a suite of subtle instrumental beauties, all traces of Mills’ phosphorescent guitar wrapped and bound in a patchwork of soft yarn and tensile wire.

At least on its surface, Look bears the telltale signs of ambient music—long tones that seem to gradually splinter into minute particles, parallel senses of space and stillness, a meditative reverie that elicits a sort of cosmic wonder. If you push play and go about your day, you may notice its presence less than you notice its sudden disappearance, when its symphonic vanishing point actually vanishes. There are traces of Eliane Radigue’s immersive Adnos series, Keith Fullerton Whitman’s teeming Playthroughs, and Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s The Pearl, all genre touchstones perfectly in tow.

But lean in just for a moment, and Eno’s gentle maxim—“Ambient Music… must be as ignorable as it is interesting”—becomes untenable. These placid settings veil tugs of war between brittle timbres and romantic textures, blended into the backdrop like figures camouflaged inside wallpaper. “Three” puts a throbbing rhythm behind a luminous hum, pulsing somewhere between Dead Can Dance and Jon Hassell. But Moose’s strings and Mills’ guitar pull against the rhythm, temporarily forcing it off its axis and creating the terrifying sensation that the world has stopped turning. As dreamlike as it is, there’s always an undercurrent of corrosive dissonance just beneath the lip of “Five,” as when the strings flash like flare guns at the five-minute mark or a sample rips through the mix like a serrated blade early into the piece. Look into these emotionally and texturally turbulent compositions, and it’s hard to look away, to “accommodate many levels of listening attention” other than rapture.

On 2010’s Break Mirrors and 2014’s Heigh Ho, Mills seemed eager to let the listener into his world, to expose his vulnerabilities and worries without hesitation through country-rock tunes. “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me” is a ruthlessly raw apology, “It’ll All Work Out” an unvarnished how-did-I-get-here manifesto. Maybe it seems surprising to consider wordless music candid, but Mills again appears to show us exactly what he’s feeling—the admixture of hope and unease that defines “One,” the calming perseverance of “Five.” And “Two” treats nostalgia like a childhood blanket, practically radiating warmth as it invites you into its pizzicato folds. As magnificent as Look sounds, that essential humanity—or the apparent sense that these instrumental abstractions are rooted as much in experience as aesthetic, if not more—is its masterstroke. Perhaps Mills, something of an enthusiast for artistic restlessness, never returns to this liminal space of drone and dream. If not, that’s OK; in these 25 minutes, he has said so much.

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