Listening to the new Mac Miller album was always going to be hard, but nothing could ever prepare you for what would ultimately end up being his final farewell. A heartbreaking walk through the mind of a tormented soul who really didn’t deserve to have the Devil knocking at his door, ‘Circles’ may all too often evoke a keen sense of sadness, but it also makes room to celebrate the artistry of one of music’s true renaissance men.
Never more a student of the game than at the end of his life, Mac’s sixth studio album, which was recorded before his death in 2018, sees him experiment with an array of new sounds, cadences and colours. Mac pushes himself further and further out of what was once considered his comfort zone.
From the gorgeous guitar licks and drum taps of ‘That’s On Me’ – on which he turns admitting fault into something beautiful – to the longing, David Bowie-esque synths that close ‘Once A Day’, there’s an obvious growth to Mac’s music, more so than ever before. No longer Easy Mac “with the cheesy raps”, he’s excelled way beyond what many thought he could be.
With production from hotshort Jon Brion (Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West, Frank Ocean), ‘Circles’ is flush with live instrumentation – mostly played my Mac himself – and thought-provoking songwriting (from ‘Once A Day: “I wonder do they see their reflection in the rain and look away”), while the rapper further realises his singing voice.
‘Good News’ might feature some perturbing lyrical content (“I’m running out of gas, hardly anything left”), but instrumentally it’s pure bliss. ’Woods’ stirs the senses with its instrumental intricacies and electronic murmurs, while ‘Hands’ celebrates self love and the importance taking time out for yourself. There’s even an inspired cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 single ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’, which Mac turns a negative into an ode to the positive, espousing a message similar to that of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’.
But as multifaceted as this record is, it’s melancholia that dominates throughout. Almost like 2Pac on ‘Me Against the World’, he broaches the subject of his own death on multiple occasions.
“This is what it look like right before you fall,” Mac raps on the album’s self-titled opening track. On the faster paced ‘Blue World’, he talks about the Devil being on his doorstep “being so shady”, but he does find some solace in music being his therapy. Then there’s ‘Complicated’, which features an eerie pause after the lyrics, “some people say they want to live forever…”
Mac’s frankness about his struggles links this album to his last, 2018’s ‘Swimming’. He introduces the idea that he – and a lot of us – are swimming in circles. It takes a lot of work to break an unhealthy cycle and it sounds like Mac was looking for a welcome distraction – often in the form of another person.
On ‘Surf’, which exudes an unmistakable John Lennon feel, he explains “I’m just trying to read you”, glad to be focussing on someone else. He finds a focus, a purpose. He even admits on ‘I Can See’ that while “life is but a dream,” he needs someone to save him.
Elsewhere, on ‘Surf’, Mac showcases an eerie – but obviously coincidental – foresight. When he sings, “the whole world is over / No playground for me and you,” you can’t help but think of such tragedies as the current Australian bushfires, Trump’s attack on Iran and the recent volcano eruption in the Philippines. He was an unwitting prophet, and Mac’s words hold weight even in death.
Overall, ’Circles’ is a very conflicting listen. It’s a high-quality project, but we lost Mac way too soon, and that’s hard to accept. So while it’s hard to listen to him talking about self-deterioration and how he spends far too much time in his own head, it’s a privilege to hear him share his inner most thoughts over a bed of sweeping, inventive sonics. This is the album Mac Miller was born to make.