Print Music Editor Richard Ainslie reviews Mac Miller’s posthumous album following its release
Listening to music released posthumously has the same ghostly quality as the red spots left in your vision by a bright light. You look away and the light hangs in front of your eyes for those short seconds, not quite real, and yet not quite finished. Mac Miller died over a year ago now and the label has released his only posthumous album Circles. It’s not as creepy as the zombie albums of Jimi Hendrix that appear 40+ years after his family buried him; but Mac’s death, or more accurately his life, still hangs over the music and change how it sounds. Inevitably the lyrics take on new gravity. Even the most innocent breaths and sighs suddenly prophesise the overdose of fentanyl that killed him. An army of pundits, keyboard tappers, and music gurus have their interpretations and told-you-sos, to the point where Mac’s personal legend obscures his music like a fog hanging on the water. You have to cut through the fog to see the sound underneath.
What does Circles sound like? For me it lies midway between fed-up and hopeful. The album cover itself has two photos of Mac superimposed. One has him with his eyes closed, head resting in one hand in a Buster Keaton slump, looking tired and dejected. The other has him upright, eyes open, hand in a fist and gazing straight out of the cover like he’s ready to get going. The songs paint the same picture; on tracks like ‘Complicated’, we find him asking for simplicity and frustrated that life doesn’t cooperate. But then there’s ‘Blue World’ which, you would assume, shares the depression that the track which it samples ‘It’s a Blue World’ pours all over itself in melancholy jazz harmony. But after the initial sample, ‘Blue World’ pulls a U-turn and speeds off at a machine-gun pace with the same boastful optimism of the earliest Mac Miller records. It’s a joy to know that among all the benzos, fadings and purple drank, he kept his playfulness alive. The whole album balances these heartbreaking moments of tiredness from the bottom of a Xanax trip with beautiful sunlight as he opens the curtains.
It maintains a musically coherent and addictive low buzz
The lead single ‘Good News’ epitomises these blacks and whites, and it’s a devastating track. Three falling notes form the centrepiece of the song, as they tumble down from tone to tone the sadness comes with them. Later in the track though, just once or twice, those tones reverse and climb back up the other way, straight towards a sunnier sound. “Can’t it just be easy / why does everybody need me to stay?” he says, followed by “Can I get a break? / I wish that I could just / get out my god damn way”. He sounds as tired as the lyrics suggest. It’s not all so gloomy, though: ‘Haven’t seen the sun in a while but I hear that sky’s still blue’ he goes on, and he ends on the refrain that maybe he’ll discover that ‘It ain’t that bad’. As a single ‘Good News’ gets the message of the album across in a misty five and a half minutes.
The lyrics on ‘Good News’ stand out, but some of the songs are peppered with trite remarks and a few lazy rhymes, which leads you to realise that the words don’t do the work here. It’s his voice, and its ups and downs, moving from mumbling to morning-air clarity that does the heavy lifting. On the lead track ‘Circles’, he switches to a gentle singing like he’s lulling himself to sleep. By ‘Surf’ he has floated to a sharp higher register like he’s tip-toeing over the buzz-saw guitar riff.
Those guitars show up everywhere. A little less funky than on Swimming, they still provide the meat of the music whether in the running riffs or the more rambling detours at the end of a track as the music quietens. The side dish is the synthesizers arranged by Jon Brion into soft shelves to hold up the guitar. Brion produces every song in an authentic Mac Miller style, impressive considering that he had to complete the album without the man himself to consult. Intended as a complement to Swimming, Circles’ sound detours just enough while maintaining the ying-yang balance that Miller wanted. It doesn’t all work, though. ‘Hands’ is a disappointment; the music not quite hitting the right tone and the sounds forming the beat just a couple of degrees away from true. The second half of the album drops a little of the energy and the originality of the top part, but as a whole, it maintains a musically coherent and addictive low buzz.
As the second half of the circle that rounds off Mac Miller’s discography, we might ask how happy Mac would be to end it here. Circles, in equal parts gentle and frenzied, is technically skilled and adventurous. It puts melancholy and hopeful on two sides of scales and they come out level, and that’s where he would want them sitting. Not denying his darker side, his troubles and addiction, and all the luggage that came with it, but not abandoning the immature optimism that has always made his music so infectious. Circles is a fitting eulogy.