Mac Miller’s ‘Circles’ – The last gift of a lost artist
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How do we explain the deep sense of grief we feel when we lose a loved one, a friend or even an artist we like?
It’s a feeling most of us will come to know all too well, at some point in our lives. When you’re in the middle of that storm, you can’t explain the feeling, it’s too raw to process and it just takes over.
To me, although this is not some unfound ancient wisdom, it’s the loss of what could have been. The loss of a future with that person.
Mac Miller’s posthumous album Circles, is not his best piece of music. However, what it does show is his undeniable growth as an artist.
Perhaps most tragically, it gives us a glimpse into where his life and career might have gone, had his young and successful life not come to end in 2018 after he overdosed in his Los Angeles home.
I just wanna go on tour
— Mac (@MacMiller) September 7, 2018
Miller’s final tweet, the day he died.
Just weeks before his untimely death, Miller released what became his masterpiece, Swimming, which served as a significant leap in his career, musically, critically and in terms of its subject matter.
mac miller’s estate just announced that a posthumous mac album is set to drop on january 17th mac was in the process of recording #circles as a companion album to ‘swimming’ at the time of his passing https://t.co/BNsmdWDk6a pic.twitter.com/xVJ4Wl9bG7
— Genius (@Genius) January 8, 2020
Until that point, Miller was a fun-loving hook merchant. Early hits like “Party on Fifth Ave.” and “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza,” showed his ability to fuse traditional jazz beats with modern breaks, something that is evident throughout Swimming. But it was the raw introspection which made that album so special.
In Circles, Miller is at his most vulnerable. The opening words on the first (and title) track, Circles paints a picture of an artist, and a man who is at the bottom, and ready to heal. The words echo painfully knowing he never could.
“Well…this is what it look’ like, right before you fall.”
The melody makes you smile and wince at the same time. Without his gravelly vocals, the riff on “Circles” could have belonged to a Beatles song, a tone never before heard in his music.
Versatility was one of Miller’s best qualities as an artist. In Swimming, a traditional rap song like “Hurt Feelings” is followed by the electro-funk hit “What’s the Use?”. No sooner does the melancholy of “Circles” end before the upbeat “Complicated” totally changes the mood.
Placing these two tracks in succession is inspired, the work of Miller’s producer Jon Brion, who endeavoured to complete the album following his death.
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“Complicated” again points to Miller’s psyche at the time of his passing. The catchy beat plays in contrast to the anguish in Miller’s words. He contemplates the past, as he struggles with day to day life, wondering how he can get his life back on track when bad things just keep happening to him.
The key change towards the end of the song seems to point to a bitter acceptance, that things aren’t getting better, which grates against the previous more uplifting sound.
“Blue World” continues this theme, Miller fighting against his own demons and the external factors which keep him pinned down.
“Good News” is the flagship song on the album. Aspirational yet cynical, beaten but not defeated; Miller is all things at once on this song, which is a perfect encapsulation of his artistry.
Miller talks about being “behind a closed door” but still wants to know “what is waiting on the other side”. The chipper melody combined with the most common refrain, “It ain’t that bad, could always be worse”, shows that Miller may have been close to a breakthrough in his life, making his death all the sadder.
After “Good News”, the album loses its way in some respects, and how couldn’t it when Brion was trying to put it together without Miller?
That doesn’t mean it is without merit however, especially for Miller’s fans. The latter half is like a series of gifts, deleted scenes from the movie that was his brilliant career. They just don’t necessarily flow as seamlessly with the first six tracks.
“I Can See” and “Everybody” share elements of his previous album Swimming, “Everybody” being a modern, hip-hop facsimile of “That’s Life”.
“Woods” is certainly the darkest track. Here Miller details his ongoing deterioration in a lot of ways, the words “Not built to last” and “Fade likes the things before me” are not met with the balance of positivity as they are earlier in the piece.
“Hand Me Downs”, “That’s On Me”, “Hands” and “Surf”, move the collection to more of an anti-love song album. Again, this points to the album production process being impossible without the genius who created it.
Finally, “Once A Day” delivers the final blow. It’s clear this was kept for the finale. The sentiment of this song is simple: give yourself a break. The final song brings the album back together, because that was clearly Miller’s message.
It certainly seems, at least when he was writing the album, that he was done fighting his demons, and wanted to live a happier and more positive life.
There is no solace in this notion however, only anguish. This album is at once a branch for fans to hold on to Mac Miller and his career for just a little longer, and a cruel reminder that we’ll never get more, from what may have become one of the most singularly important artists in our time.
IF YOU OR ANYONE YOU KNOW NEEDS HELP, CONTACT Canberra Health Services’ Alcohol and Other Drugs Services ON (02) 5124 9977 OR BEYONDBLUE ON 1300 224 636