Part of the appeal of electric guitar is that it can be punishingly loud, walloping you with waves of gritty, gluey sound. Blake Mills understands this better than a lot of other guitarists, even though he seems like a mild-mannered barista.
Actually, he understands something much less obvious: that volume and power don’t deprive you of subtlety. This rendition of “If I’m Unworthy,” a track off of his 2014 album Heigh-Ho, proves it.
The song’s backbone is a single punishingly loud guitar tuned way down (open C#, if anyone cares). As I listened through, I kept picturing boiling lava in my mind’s eye: this powerful substance, gloopy and oozy, that still manages to pop and crackle with surprising quickness. Listen to the great dynamic contrast around :40, or the harmonic at about 1:09, right before he locks into the song’s main groove. The introduction itself attains a kind of precise sloppiness available only to the best players.
Mills effortlessly keeps a bass line and rhythmic accompaniment going as he sings, in a way that is derived from old blues players and funneled through the Black Keys and White Stripes, although Mills involves more harmonically complex ideas than his antecedents.
And while you get caught up in that complexity, as well as Mills’ not-bad-at-all voice, you’re reminded that this song is essentially about celebrating the guitar’s power when he takes a solo break at…you know what? I’m not going to tell you the time. But I think if you were in the studio when it happened, your eardrums finally popped.
After I finish listening to this song, I feel oddly cleansed. Perhaps it’s the contrast of noise to silence, but I think even more than that it’s because Mills performs in a very reverent way—it is spiritual, emotional exercise. And it rocks.