By Cheyenne Young
Artist: Mac Miller
Release Date: January 17, 2020
Label: Warner Records
The first lyric Mac Miller offers us in his posthumous and possibly final studio album, Circles, is a sighing “Well…,” setting a somber and melancholic tone. As I sit here grasping at ways to begin this review, writing and erasing, starting and stopping, I find a sighing “Well” may be the perfect place to start. Well, here it goes.
The recording of Circles began in 2018 shortly after the release of it’s sister album, Swimming. After Miller’s death in September of that year, the production of Circles fell into the hands of Jon Brion, who he had been collaborating with on this project. Using Miller’s vision for the album, Brion finished the project which was then released to the public by Miller’s family. The emotion-packed album serves almost as a eulogy from Miller himself, giving his friends, family and fans what feels like a goodbye hug.
Title track “Circles” is the first song on the album. It quickly becomes a very self-aware track lyrically, an idea that is carried throughout the album; the awareness Miller had about his own mortality. A calm, vocal-based song, “Circles” keeps a steady backing beat while Miller draws us in with his under-acknowledged singing. Keeping a constant hymn, the lyrics “I cannot be changed, No trust me I’ve tried” seem to hit the heart a little harder with the knowledge of Miller’s struggles with addiction.
I could write a novel about the impact of the album’s single “Good News.” Released on January 9 by Miller’s family, “Good News” indicated the release of the album. Knowing Miller wrote this song before his death is hard to fathom as it becomes very foreshadowing. The song is a look inside Miller’s head, the place he feels he can never escape. Nonetheless, Miller sounds hopeful as he talks about what comes next, giving a sense of realism with the lyrics “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side.”
The sixth track, “Everybody,” produced by Miller and Brion, is a cover of the late Arthur Lee’s song “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” While Lee was formerly the headman of Los Angeles based rock band Love, the song comes from his solo album Vindicator, released in 1972. Miller made this track his own, allowing it to slide smoothly in with the rest of the album. The cover was slowed down, piano-driven and shortened as there was a decision to leave off the final verse of the original song.
The album’s only feature finds itself on the track “Hand Me Downs.” The vocals of Australian musician Baro Sura are included on this track alongside his drumming. Having a similar style with his own music, Sura’s feature fits right in. The soul-inspired track keeps a consistent beat as Miller voices his desire to find something steady to keep him grounded. As the song moves smoothly from pre-chorus to chorus, Sura’s voice is like butter on this track, melting each verse together.
As Miller continued to experiment more and more musically with each new album, he also seemed to give us more and more of himself. Circles is raw emotion, stripped-down with jazz influences and piano accompaniment, all weaved together with Miller’s singing. His ability to be vulnerable shines in the track “Surf” as Miller relies primarily on his vocals to lead the song. A more soft-spoken track, “Surf” shows the confidence Miller has with his vocal range, effortlessly hitting high notes as he says “Until we get old, there’s water in the flowers, let’s grow.”
The deluxe version of the album dropped on March 19 and included two additional tracks: “Right” and “Floating.” Throughout Miller’s discography there’s a continuity of the idea of his not being from Earth and feeling alien to this planet. This holds up in “Floating” as Miller describes a euphoric space he wishes to get away to one day, saying “There’s a room somewhere up above the trees, and once you get there you don’t ever want to leave.” “Right” is a gloomy yet hopeful track about lost love and the feelings attached to needing somebody still. There’s a steady heartbreak you can’t help but feel as Miller hums the final melody.
This wasn’t meant to be the end for Miller. As he undoubtedly grew confidence in his style with each album, there was so much more that he would have given the world. In an interview with radio host Zane Lowe discussing Circles as well as Miller himself, Jon Brion said, “I already had plans about the future involving him, I had a pile of instruments put aside to give him. I was more excited about him than I’ve been in quite some time.”
What Mac Miller created is more than just an album; it’s an equation. One of those algebra problems you couldn’t ever solve, and every time you revisit it you find more to the equation you hadn’t picked up on before. Here’s to never solving it. Rest easy.
Featured image via Warner Records.