Review Summary: A shame that my tragedy my masterpiece.
The quote above is from Faces
, but beyond the obvious relevance to Circles
, it illustrates something about Mac Miller I find utterly compelling. Maybe the most compelling thing about an evolution that, even cut unfairly short, looks now like one of the most impressive and unique in music today.
The thing I'm talking about is how Miller compulsively, almost pathologically put himself under the microscope, celebrating wins but exposing flaws, shockingly honest about the parts of himself he wanted to change and the demons he knew would always hinder that. I don't have to go all genius-annotations-conspiracy on you to illustrate how Mac's evolution as a person was paralleled by the meteoric changes in his sound - he did that for us himself, all the time. That quote is, I think, the saddest thing in Mac Miller's discography, because it makes it perfectly clear he knew that the drugs that eventually took his life also powered his artistic evolution. But I don't quote it here just to kill your vibe. Mac saw his fanbase clamouring for darker, sadder, more drug-fucked music, unknowing or maybe uncaring of the cost, and he did something in response which always makes me smile. Mac Miller made the biggest leap he'd ever make. He got sober and made albums about happiness and devotion and love.
Regardless of how it all ended, I bring this up because Circles
has its roots in those clean, peaceful, singing-forward albums, The Divine Feminine
most of all. I don't mean they sound the same, which is kind of a relief: Circles
is more beautiful, full of more moments of grace and gentle psychedelia than its G-funk-aping predecessor. The sentiment is there, though. Miller knew he had the tools to be something so much more than a rapper, no matter how well he put his fratboy past in the past and dived into more acclaimed waters. He had the singing voice, however scratchy and untrained; he had the knowledge of 60s and 70s pop and psychedelia to inform his tinkering with analog instruments; he had the brilliant Jon Brion as mentor and collaborator. Most of all, he had the songs, in one form or another. When the video of Mac Miller letting "Once a Day" flow out onto a piano played at Celebration of Life
, the world at large could see the artist coming out of his shell that obsessives had been waiting on for years; maybe ever since "Objects in the Mirror" cleared the first steps along this path.
As ever, Miller was not content just dipping his toe into a new sound. Here, acid-burned guitar drips fuzz over the otherwise Jack Johnson-chill "Surf"; a chop of 50s quartet pop that would make Madlib blush steams the gorgeous "Blue World"; elaborately orchestrated instruments recall Brion's work on Late Registration
on the ornate "I Can See" and "Hands". Brion's graceful touch comes in handy in much the same way it did for Kanye or Elliott Smith - providing lush instrumental beds for the artist to construct their songs upon. Like Smith in the XO
era, Mac seems to have been spinning Beatles records in search of influence, manifesting slightly awkwardly on the acid-trip waltz "That's On Me". Much more successful is a nimble rendition of Arthur Lee's "Everybody's Gotta Live", going a long way to providing cred with regards to 70s psychedelic pop; here it becomes a piano-led tune, with flourishing live drums providing the equivalent of a filthy bass drop. Wisely, Brion leaves "Once a Day" almost untouched. It's impossible to fathom the album closing any other way - a clear-eyed Mac Miller and a piano make the case for him being, at the core, a truly terrific songwriter above anything else.
Of course, there's no analysis of this album unfiltered by, as Jon Brion put it, the 'loss-goggles'. But where Circles
succeeds, where it becomes a graceful and elegant piece of art rather than an experimental excursion, is in finding the perfect subject matter for its laidback meanderings. Quite simply, these songs are dispatches from a day in the life of Mac Miller. Circles
traces the day-to-day minutiae of simply living, doing whatever needs to be done to see it through to another day, in a way that makes it entirely unique within the very loose definition of hip-hop. Whether Miller is decluttering his anxiety-clouded head on "Good News", musing on the simple life in "Complicated" or waxing lyrical about love and sex once again on "Hand Me Downs" and "Surf", Circles
is undeniably complete and compelling in its exploration of a few recurring topics: time, clocks, days beginning and ending. A line Miller didn't write unexpectedly becomes something of a centrepiece: "feel like I've seen a million sunsets, if you're with me I'll never go away […] because everybody's gotta live."
What I'm getting at is that this is the work of an artist, not just a rapper who decided to try and sing. It's not just the softness of the album, the warm and inviting gentleness, although even when Miller slips back into some relaxed rhyme schemes, it's over instrumentals closer to folk than hip-hop. It's not just the layered, lush bed of sound that Miller and Brion laid down, like a psychedelic dream life glimpsed from a distance in a beach house in the summer. It's that Mac Miller sounded at peace, maybe for the first time, on the last music he made before his life ended, and something about that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. When "Woods", without fanfare or lampshading, reprises the synth from "So It Goes"' representation of the ascent to heaven, I'm choosing to believe that's Jon Brion expressing a subtle but lovely sentiment. On Circles
, Mac Miller found his heaven, and it looked a lot like everyday life with the simple things.