Mac Miller - Circles
Posted by Luke on the
Filed under music
One of the unfortunate realities of life is that people die. The music industry, eager to exploit, will often take this opportunity to cash in. They'll bastardise the hard work of productive musicians and release posthumous albums, and countless remixes of classic songs from various artists. Look no further than the discography of Notorious B.I.G, 2pac, Big L, or more recently, XXXTENTACION. The latest project from X's estate was an album released in late 2019. Out of 25 tracks, 17 tracks had featured artists for a total of 21 guest verses.
The announcement of Circles was something different. Mac was working diligently to finish this album before his untimely death in 2018. A significant portion of Swimming and Circles was "executive produced" by Jon Brion who carried the torch and tried to finish the album as Mac intended it. When I initially saw his writing credits on Swimming I was quite surprised.
I pondered the mystery of how you connect the dots between an eccentric composer who is most well known for his work on movie scores and a trendy rap artist. Turns out, it's not that much of a mystery at all. In an episode of What's In My Bag with Amoeba records Jon Brion says, "You know, my complaint about most people who make records and go out and shove their shit down people's throats is that... all I see them doing is giving me their impression of what they think they're supposed to be doing. And it's what bores me about 99.999% of people who make stuff." For a man who said that to clear his calendar and help finish Circles, he must have really been excited about working with Mac.
If you consider his work in film, Jon really does a masterful job of conveying tone. I have to thank Jon for the inspiration/encouragement he gave Mac, but in his interview with Zane Lowe, he insists "That's not something I created, that's something he was doing and I was only asking him to recognise that it was already great."
The album is littered with references to time. More specifically it seems to be about how you perceive time. Do you let time be a tyrant in your life and fight it, or do you go with the flow and ride it out? One of the greatest albums of all time is Dark Side of the Moon which also featured references to time very prominently. Dark Side of the Moon starts and ends the same way, with a heartbeat. This seems to represent the cycle of life: a notion that is paralleled in the opening track Circles. The line goes "I just end up right at the start of the line. Drawin' circles." Similarly, every day ends the same way it begins; the hands of the clock go around in a circle until they strike 12.
Hey, one of these days we'll all get by
Don't be afraid, don't fall
After the very sombre start, the synth and funky bassline (shout out to MonoNeon) of Complicated was fairly jarring on first listen. After going back through for a second time, it really just seemed to make sense. The lyrics are very dour which contrasts beautifully with the rather upbeat and playful instrumental. Many songs use this tactic like a trojan horse to insert some meaning into poppy songs, because they probably wouldn't top the Billboard 200 if the instrumentals matched the lyrics. (See Hey Ya by Outkast). A recent example is in the Purple Mountains song All My Happiness Is Gone. The late David Berman said in an interview "it just complexifies the profile of it to have the music and the words at odds". As it turns out, Complicated wasn't originally made for the album, but it fits beautifully. Leading on from Come Back to Earth on Swimming where he says "I just need a way out of my head", Complicated has the first reference to his difficulties unravelling the mess in his head which ties into Good News later in the album.
With Circles and Complicated, I get the impression that Mac was living in the present which is a comforting way to approach life when you're going through a hard time. Lyrics like "I've got all the time in the world, so for now I'm just chilling" and "'fore I start to think about the future. First, can I please get through a day?". He's taking life one day at a time and working through the "clutter" in his head. The downside of this approach is you can easily forget about the bigger picture and end up clinging to destructive coping mechanisms.
Won't give a fuck about tomorrow if I die today
Aside from a few leaks like "Telescope" (which became Woods) and Once a Day (which was played during his A Celebration of Life as a straight piano ballad), Good News was the only music released to promote the album (perfect choice). Mac opens the track talking about fighting his demons ("I spent the whole day in my head, Do a little spring cleanin'"), but often feeling hamstrung by his own instincts to self-sabotage. He says, "I wish that I could just get out my goddamn way", and "Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go and set it on fire?"
With a different interpretation, these lyrics could have been delivered with a very moody inflection to create a much darker tone, but the muted string plucking and sparse instrumentation give this very calming, ethereal feeling. This track also features guitar from Wendy Melvoin (guitarist for Prince's band, The Revolution), considering that John Mayer played guitar on Small Worlds, it's really clear how infectious Mac Miller's talent was. These great musicians happily collaborated with him with very little public recognition. Paired with the subdued vocals it is just a beautiful tribute to his life and legacy and a reassuring reminder from the great beyond.
Especially when coupled with the music video, it has a surreal quality that feels like he's in the room talking to you. It almost sounds like he's reassuring people from the great beyond with lyrics like "There's a whole lot more for me waitin' on the other side". It's a story of the immortal quality of music. So, it only makes sense that an image of Mac appears in a Lotus flower which has a symbolic meaning in Buddhism. It resembles the purifying of the spirit which is born into murkiness. The ending of him walking through the airplane window and disappearing as a ripple in the water is superb and continues to drive home the idea of swimming. Good News is the best send-off anyone could hope for.
I was drowning but now I'm swimming
Woods is my favourite track on the album. It's probably the most subdued track with very sparse lyrics and instrumentation. The opening lines of "Things like this ain't built to last, I might just fade like those before me" could be interpreted a few ways. This album was recorded shortly after the loss of a relationship. It feels like saying "If you were able to forget the people you used to love and love me, then surely you'll be able to forget me and move on". Another interpretation could be his anxiety about his legacy and whether he did enough to be remembered.
Hand Me Downs is a testament to Mac's commitment on his last two albums. In my opinion the best albums seldom have (many) artists featured. To me, it exudes a lack of confidence in what you're producing and a level of insecurity that you feel as though you need to attach bigger names to your songs for them to be well liked. The feature on this album by Baro Sura was a very purposeful choice and it only seems to serve the album's narrative and vibe. And with Baro being a relatively unknown artist it feels like this was someone Mac really liked and believed in, and he delivered a great performance.
I've written before about how I like albums the most when there's a consistent vision from the lyrics to the production. Out of all of his studio albums, Mac seemed to take care of around 30-50% of the production and outsource the rest of it to other producers. Circles, however, sees a staggering 75% of production handled by Mac. For whatever reason, the production is credited to Mac Miller, not his oft-used production moniker "Larry Fisherman". I like to believe that's because this send-off is a time capsule for us to see who Malcolm really was around the time of his death. A truly honest expression of Mac the musician.
Hands takes the metaphor of time further. To me, the beat sounds reminiscent of a clock ticking, and hands seems to refer to the hands of a clock. It seems to be a letter to himself urging him to ease up on himself and stop feeling so low. "When's the last time you took a little time for yourself?" and later in the chorus "No, I stay behind the wheel and never half-speed". "Never half-speed" might suggest that he is always speeding and might benefit from slowing down. This hearkens back to the line on Small Worlds (Swimming): "I'm always in a rush, I been thinking too much".
Throughout the whole album it feels as though there's two versions of Mac. There's the self-reprimanding Mac with unrelenting standards (the Yin, if you will) and the Mac that is more forgiving and reinforcing that his imperfections aren't the sum of his existence (the Yang). If he could just achieve a balance between these two sides then maybe life would be just a little bit less complicated. This concept of Mac's duality could also explain why the album art features two images of himself superimposed.
Yeah, why don't you wake up from your bad dreams?
When's the last time you took a little time for yourself?
Strangely, it feels as though any track on the album could have been the last track and it wouldn't be lacking. But what's important is that the final track represents the last goodbye. The important thing to nail is the tone. Jon Brion made the decision to put Once A Day at the end, and it was a very intentional decision. What message did he want to leave us with for the final act of Mac? Once a day opens with a monologue "Once a day, I rise. Once a day, I fall asleep with you". He's really talking to himself. You spend more time with yourself than anyone else and it's important for you to be comfortable with that. "Don't keep it all in your head. The only place that you know nobody can ever see". Once A Day is a tale of inner peace and a final reminder that we need to stay open, not just to others, but most importantly, to ourselves.
The painful part of listening to this album is the feeling of finality. There will never again be a Mac Miller album that was wholly - or even partially - designed by him. The circle is often seen as a symbol of permanence and immortality, like the Ouroboros (a snake eating its own tail) in Greek mythology. So, it's only fitting that the album to solidify his legacy in our minds is Circles.
Circles feels like a realisation that life isn't a comedy but it's more of a tragedy with comic relief. True maturity is welcoming that reality but recognising that sometimes the best you can do is keep Swimming in Circles.
- A retrospective written in the wake of Mac Miller's passing: https://lukeboyle.com/blog/posts/mac-miller/