Blake Mills has always been a difficult artist to pin down. His fourth solo album Jelly Road, then, is a characteristically slippery prospect, a record of quiet contemplation and deceptive disorder, shapeshifting to match its elusive creator. Earlier this year Mills was a key component of a very different kind of album, serving as songwriter and producer for Aurora, the album of original songs performed by the fictional faux-’70s soft-rock group Daisy Jones & the Six. These songs serve as the backdrop for a classic story of rock and roll rise and fall largely inspired by Fleetwood Mac, and do so with the kind of pop brilliance which that comparison requires. There will probably never be a fictionalized version of Blake Mills’ career—and that’s a shame, because few have followed quite the same spread as Mills’, a jelly road to be sure.
Daisy Jones isn’t the only band—fictional or otherwise—that owes a whole lot to Mills. Throw a dart at a map of contemporary guitar-based pop and you’ll likely land on an artist whose path has crossed with Mills. Beginning as a collaborator with Taylor Goldsmith in an early iteration of Americana song machine Dawes, Mills quickly became a premiere session musician on albums by everyone from The Avett Brothers to Pink to Randy Newman, a cog in their highly refined machines. Soon he wasn’t just appearing on but producing these sorts of albums, working alongside Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius, and John Legend on some of the most accomplished works of their careers, establishing a kind of foundational Millsian sound that’s evident even in wildly varying circumstances. All the while he’s been sprinkling in his own solo records as if they were an afterthought, works that blur the line between the Americana leanings of some of his frequent collaborators and the experimentation he so clearly craves.
Which brings us to Jelly Road, a record that contains both all and none of what came before it. There’s a certain mathematical quality to Mills’ solo work, not only in the cumulative nature of experience but in the measured way he adds and subtracts. Jelly Road is a record of layers, one in which the kind of easy, lovable pop of Aurora is just one piece of a thousand-piece puzzle. As with Mills’ previous record, 2020’s Mutable Set, Jelly Road kicks off with an extended wordless intro, nearly two minutes of cascading guitar work that edges toward chaos. You can almost imagine Mills here feeding ideas as they come, allowing each to flourish while holding desperately as they threaten to spin out of control. A lot of Jelly Road is like this—an exercise in finding the line and flirting with crossing it completely. “What is going too far and what is not?” sings Mills on the wonderfully ambling “Unsingable,” before providing a line that goes a long way to capturing his solo work in its entirety: “A bit profound and a bit prosaic.”
Mills is very clearly a genius-level songwriter and musician, and that comes across a lot on Jelly Road—for better and, at times, for worse. There are moments on the record where you long for a bit of the simplicity of some of his earlier work. There’s nothing here that approaches the Americana mastery of songs like “It’ll All Work Out” and “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” songs which are, at this point, part of a different phase of Mills’ career. Saying a record will grow on a listener can sometimes be a way of providing faint, perhaps backhanded praise, but in the case of Jelly Road that seems to be almost the point. It’s clear that Mills knows how to write a satisfying pop song, but what he’s after here is something a bit more elusive. Whether you want to follow him down that road is up to you.