An easy way into talking about Jelly Road, Blake Mills’ fourth solo LP, is Daisy Jones & the Six. The Santa Monica-raised musician served as chief songwriter on the TV adaptation of the Taylor Jenkins Reid novel loosely inspired by Fleetwood Mac, writing and producing all the original songs for the show and its accompanying album Aurora. He worked closely with Vermont experimental musician Chris Weisman, among others, and it was in the midst of that process that the pair met in person for the first time to lay down the bridge for ‘There Is No Now’, a track from Jelly Road. Weisman became Mills’ main collaborator on the record, which shares very little in common with Daisy Jones or the era of rock n’ roll it draws from. There are, of course, echoes of artists Mills has played with in the past – Bob Dylan, Fiona Apple, Cass McCombs, Feist, to name a few – and it’s not hard to trace a line between Jelly Road and Mills’ last two efforts: Notes With Attachment, his colourful 2021 collaboration with bassist Pino Palladino, and 2020’s mellifluous, intimate Mutable Set.
What makes Jelly Road uniquely refreshing, though, is how it’s animated by a lack of context and narrative – even that of Mills’ own discography – focusing instead on turning a loose string of ideas and melodies into an immersive, companionable whole. Like Mills’ previous solo outings, Jelly Road benefits from its unhurried, elusive, and dream-like flow. The opening track ‘Suchlike Horses’ conjures the air of a cool summer night, feeling placeless in ways both haunting and satisfying, before the lovely ‘Highway Bent’ breezes through a hazy morning; yet both songs feel like a gentle awakening, unalarmed. Thanks in part to his collaborators, though, Mills allows himself to venture a little further out of his comfort zone, imbuing his lush and meticulous arrangements with an elastic, adventurous quality.
An obvious example is ‘Skeleton Is Walking’, which locks into one of those controlled grooves before Mills blazes through with a remarkably expressive guitar solo, as if to fill in the vast, incomprehensive space between the otherworldly and day-to-day: “A skeleton is walking/ Someone’s getting paid/ Someone’s building a fire/ Someone’s getting flayed.” On highlight ‘Press My Luck’, his musical tendencies register almost as a kind of defense mechanism, as he sings about burned bridges and raging wildfires with a sense of wistful composure that’s thrown off, thrillingly, by Wendy Melvoin’s wah-wah guitar. (Melvoin, who played in Prince’s band the Revolution, appears throughout the album and even has a wonderful instrumental named after her.) Despite a few of these more imposing moments, Jelly Road remains a work of subtle complexity, a puzzle you’re a little too far from to decode. Mills’ approach is inquisitive, and on ‘Unsingable’, directly self-reflective. “What can make a song unbearable?/ What has nothing more to say?” he sings, and the arrangement itself seems to straddle that line, the familiar resonance of the piano and organic synth flourishes trickling over faint, invulnerable percussion.
You can easily get lost in this murky ground, but Mills never holds the listener at too much of a distance; he wants you to lean in. It’s the only way to catch the tentative hope of ‘The Light Is Long’, which half-concedes to a cliche: “If time won’t heal all things/ It might do some.” You’ll realize his existential musings are sometimes nothing more than a strange, pervasive sensation, like, “Time unfolding is a trick.” There’s no way out of uncertainty, but the path starts getting clearer the more you learn to play along, and the further you step out. By the time we get to the closer, ‘Without an Ending’, Mills admits to feeling good, “not adrift,” then doubles back, unsatisfied with the negative implications of the word. There’s a lightness to it that feels rather like a gift. So he stretches the song out, fading and expanding at the same time, patiently and with resolve.