Review Summary: I ain't asking why no more / nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind / it ain't 2009 no more / yeah I know what's behind that door
Mac Miller's death was tragic and unnecessary and could have been avoided. Worse than all that, it was signposted. I only became a fan in the handful of months leading up to Swimming
's release and even I couldn't say I was surprised at the cause of death. The growing introversion and reluctance to deal with the outside world on Watching Movies With the Sound Off
, an obsession with writing about himself overdosing over and over again on Faces
, a bone-chilling verse where he imagines his mother getting the news on "Perfect Circle / Godspeed". The unspoken understanding amongst Mac fans was that his best work was created heavily on drugs, like Layne Staley's or Trent Reznor's or a long line of others before him. Some would have been happy to argue that he should relapse to drugs so he could make great music again - I remember jubilant comments like 'DRUG MAC IS BACK' greeting the release of "Self Care", a song Mac Miller wrote about his efforts to want to stay alive. But who knew at the time？ To be crystal clear, there's no hidden vista of talent that was only exposed to the world after Mac Miller's death, no Grammy-worthy performative reflection on death that could only fully take shape after its maker had ceased living. If there's one constant across Mac's discography it's that he wore his heart on his sleeve, whether that was the love-and-sex-struck The Divine Feminine
or his darkest suicidal ideations on Faces
. The open-hearted earnestness, stunning production, the way he could share his vision with - and expand it to include - an incredible lineup of featured artists. All were always there if you cared to listen.
So yeah. I loved this funky, funny, sad, silly album from the second I heard it and my feelings didn't massively change when Mac Miller died. Yes, songs like "Dunno" and "Wings", which I previously thought of as lesser, wormed their way into my subconscious, but repeat listens probably would have done that anyway. Yes, there are lines in "Self Care" and "So It Goes" that are unbearably sad now, but these were beautiful and powerful lines before their writer died. My sneaking feeling from the first listen, one which blossomed into a certainty recently, was that I was hearing an artist hitting his peak. Many would choose the dark-night-of-the-soul odyssey Faces
, one of the best mixtapes this decade; or Watching Movies With the Sound Off
as the first demonstration of what Mac Miller could really do; even GO:OD AM
or The Divine Feminine
as his most joyful celebrations of what music can do. None are bad choices (unless you a weirdo and pick Blue Slide Park
or something before), but Swimming
is his most complete work. The transition from "Self Care" to "Wings" is so damn effortless, but it's the kind of thing an artist could work on for years without perfecting. Before this only Faces
had attempted perfect flow, and that's not an album; Swimming
is gorgeously content in its completeness, every song in its right place and ready to set up the next. It also just sounds
like Mac's best work - there's nothing as instantly breathtaking as the "Apparition" outro or the "S.D.S." carnival-ride beat, but this album weaves the disparate talents of Jon Brion, Thundercat, Mac's alter ego and more into one thirteen-part movement with a deft hand. Brion, especially, eclipses even his contributions to Late Registration
all those years ago, whether he's fleshing out the beats with piano on "Small Worlds" and "2009" or taking a swing at transcribing the ascent to heaven to a synth solo on "So It Goes".
I try really hard to look at Swimming
objectively, argue for its merits based purely on its quality - which alone made it, for this writer, an album of the year contender - and not on the tragedy that it will forever be associated with. But there's an exception to that rule, and that's "2009". It's amazing what you can do with a great melody for piano and vocals, and "2009" doesn't need a whole lot more. The chorus gently ebbs in and out, Mac's charming scratch of a voice perfectly suited to deliver the clear-eyed, reflective lines, ones you'd need a heart of stone to hear without feeling the loss of a far-too-young man weighing on your mind. If Swimming
is the masterstroke of an artist who left too soon, "2009" is its crown jewel, a song it's easy to believe ten years of music was leading up to.
"I ain't asking why no more / nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind / it ain't 2009 no more / yeah I know what's behind that door"
RIP Mac Miller, 1992-2018