In a letter posted to Instagram prior to the release of Mac Miller’s sixth studio album, the late artist’s family made clear the motivations that spurred the project to completion. “This is a complicated process that has no right answer. No clear path. We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.” When magnified under the cynical lens of the music industry, such an addendum would seem to carry with it the weight of posthumous expectations, clunky capitalism parading under the guise of good intentions. Yet in parsing through Miller’s final thoughts, it becomes apparent that Circles is a refreshingly polished work and not some empty cash grab strung together to fulfill contractual obligations or the selfish desires of others.
Released two days before what would have been Miller’s 28th birthday, Circles was originally designed to be a companion piece to 2018’s Swimming, an album released a little over a month before his passing due to an accidental drug overdose. Songwriter-composer extraordinaire Jon Brion was left with the exceedingly difficult task of picking up the pieces, and he does well to nurture the vision that emerged from their time together. The consistent stylistic focus stemming from Brion’s involvement as caretaker yielded an album that is comprehensive without being indentured to one particular sound. Not once does Miller’s presence get lost in the mixing, his silvery intonation gliding from one record to the next, simultaneously conducting and pondering the world at hand.
In life, Miller was transparent about his flaws but equally persistent in his pursuit of growth. His search for clarity brought him down many musical paths such that he came to embody the six degrees of separation between Mac DeMarco and Vince Staples. He was a mecca of connection points, furnishing a community that cherished his sensibilities and relished the opportunity to share in his creativity and humor. Nonetheless, Miller was beleaguered by demons that only seemed to multiply as the years progressed and his success ripened. With postmortem epilogue Circles, it’s admittedly easy to latch on to the eerie foreshadowing that tails his every word; many have pointed to the chilling premonition of GO:OD AM’s “Brand Name” as the jumping off point (“To everyone who sell me drugs/Don’t mix it with that bullshit/I’m hoping not to join the 27 Club”). Indeed, Miller’s preoccupation with an early demise and the notion of skating by on borrowed time makes for gutting material when considering the circumstances surrounding his death. He spends more time singing than on any other project, opting for a plainspoken presentation that carves out space for his voice to be the primary conveyor of emotion. There are times where he sounds altogether too weary to push beyond muttered conversational tones, as if he’s just been stirred from a long hibernation only to find that the sky remains obscured by the same thick veil of anxiety that tucked him in.
Although Miller’s lyrics on Circles hold devastating new meaning in the wake of his absence, the messages within are galvanized by gusts of hope. There is a playfulness to his vulnerability, the optimistic undercurrents breathing vitality into his closing act. He confronts his demons with open arms, recognizing the need for self-preservation in sifting through the grey areas of his life. Struggles with fame (“I heard they don’t talk about me too much no more/And that’s the problem with a closed door) and depression (“Maybe I’ll lay down for a little/Instead of always trying to figure everything out”) surface in candid portraits as he probes the contours of his consciousness for the semblance of balance that eludes most individuals.
The album leads with a titular track where even the bouts of self-admonishment are tinged with aspiration (“Well, this is what it looks like right before you fall”). Miller’s contemplation of the mistakes that sent him back “at the start of the line” is quickly ushered into the one-day-at-a-time lurch of “Complicated,” a track where the evolution of his sound is front and center. Piano ballad “Everybody,” an inspired cover of Love frontman Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” serves as a reminder of the imperishable shot clock looming above existence, while the stuttering vocal samples of “Blue World” offer the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Miller spends a great deal of Circles dissecting the destructive character traits and insecurities that hamstring and ultimately threaten to hijack his well-being, patterns of behavior that come home to roost on “Hand Me Downs” (“I made it, but I hate once I build it I break it”). “Hands,” the one song that could be categorized as “rap,” looks to healthier means of coping, questioning “When’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?” Miller’s pleas on “I Can See” (“I’m in an oasis/Well, I need somebody to save me/Before I drive myself crazy”) are eventually married to the realization on “Surf” that loneliness doesn’t have to be the eternal prison he initially envisioned for himself (“I know somewhere there’s home/I’m startin’ to see that all I have to do is get up and go”).
No entry is more vital to this reckoning than single “Good News,” a song that longs for reconciliation in the face of uncertainty. It’s as if Miller is trapped at sea, the tropical storm clouds teasing warmth at the edge of the horizon. His lovingly documented yearning, scrawled along the dingy’s wooden bow as whitecaps froth around him, is one of the album’s most powerful moments of surrender.
Subtle instrumental embellishments contribute to this ambiance and accentuate Circle’s understated vocal arrangements. Whether it be the delicate plucking of “spring cleaning” strings on “Good News,” the whirling eddy of synths that make up “Woods,” or the dreamy pop grain of “I Can See,” such diversity is anchored in the more nuanced sounds that Miller was wielding later in his career, and they manifest on Circles as fleshed out as they’ve ever been.
In setting his sights on something greater, Miller plunged untapped facets of his being. He delved deeper and deeper from one project to the next, often stumbling upon alarming truths but retaining a striking honesty with each discovery. This is Circle’s most haunting quality: for all of its beauty, there are vast swathes of potential left swirling in the heartbreak of what could have been. Miller was just beginning to come into his own as an artist, and such refinement will presumably idle in its current unfinished state.
Still, there is closure to be found in such a goodbye. With each passing song, Miller further straddles the threshold separating contentment and melancholy, revelation and insanity. In this sense, Circles is far from a linear excursion, let alone an epiphany on how such things are not mutually exclusive. Rather, it’s a continuous exercise in reflection and self-care, a stirring denunciation of ambivalence and apathy from someone who spent his days sorting through the cluttered contents of his mind. It’s a resiliency that gestures onward, sometimes slowing to a near flat-lining crawl and other times whisking forward as if compelled by Shakespeare’s “once more unto the breach.” Amidst such poignancy, Circles stands as a fond and fitting farewell that finds solace in sadness and acceptance in knowing that transformation need not be shackled to the past.