ALBUM REVIEW: Mac Miller - Circles

A final glimpse into the mind of an ever-changing artist.

Mac Miller - Circles (2020 Warner)
 

Mac Miller's fatal overdose in September 2018 struck the landscape of popular music with a shock and an anguish that entirely reflected the emotional resonance of his increasingly introspective material. From 2011's snapback-adorned Blue Side Park, the progression of Mac Miller's creative output from banal 'frat rap' to emotionally vulnerable lyricism pushed this artist into a figure at the very forefront of deeply personal hip-hop musicianship, and his loss represented the death of an artist still developing his approach to self-examination and emotive honesty. At the age of 27, Miller's death came just months after the release of LP Swimming, but in the midst of significant work on a follow-up release, and so this year's Circles serves as an attempt to finalise the substantial work Mac Miller had completed for a companion album to his previous record. Realised almost entirely through producer Jon Brion in an attempt to synthesise the music and surrounding aims of the record into a finished product, Circles stands out as a satisfying moment of closure from an artist that has immortalised his struggles and strength through visceral songwriting and soft instrumentation.


The eponymous 'Circles' opens the album off with soft glockenspiel and a tone-rolled bass guitar sat firmly behind the gritty vocal lines of Miller. As much of the album does, Brion's production makes no attempt to share the spotlight with the late artist, instead electing to sit a few rows back from Miller, who (front and centre) takes the stage to complete this victory lap of a posthumous LP. It's definitely difficult to hear Miller croon "well this is what it looks like / right before you fall / stumbling around you've been guessing your direction / next step you can't see at all" in that first track considering Miller's death, taking new meanings after that tragic loss.


The soft tranquillity of 'Circles' then quickly gives way for the more bombastic 'Complicated' - perhaps reminiscent more of 2016's The Divine Feminine than the artist's more recent work. It ends abruptly on the line "Well I'm way too young / to be getting old" as a heavy-handed reiteration of the loss of this artist before switching over to 'Blue World' and a particularly inventive sampling of The Four Freshman's 'It's A Blue World' leading into an even further dive back into the aural character of The Divine Feminine with an exceptionally jumpy beat before pushing into lead single 'Good News'.


'Good News' hits the emotional significance of this album on the head. Almost Blackstar-esque in the context of Mac's death, the song sounds like an artist entirely conscious of his upcoming demise with a laid-back reference to "There's a whole lot for me waiting on the other side." It's a standout track among the album and rivals the quality of many of the artist's other exceptional material. 'I Can See' however, is comparatively dull. The production is sparse and appealing, but the beat and intensely arpeggiating synth lines seem entirely incongruous to Miller's introspective lyricism. It is of course unknown how many of the artistic decisions within Circles were Mac's or Brion's, but 'I Can See' juts out like an interlude that significantly overstays its welcome after a very good opening musical salvo. Following this, a cover of Arthur Lee's 'Everybody's Gotta Live' is particularly poignant given the album's significance. It's an excellent reinvention of the song, and it entirely warrants its place in this album, but it feels to me that it would've been much more emotionally resonant if placed towards the end of the tracklisting, rather than losing attention inside of the all-guns-blazing first half of the record.


Reaching 'Woods'and the second half of this project however, the issue of Circles as an album begins to emerge, with the album unfortunately beginning to blur together into an increasingly one-note project as it progresses. The second half does not compare to the opening six tracks (excluding the forgettable 'I Can See') and with a few exceptions this second act does little to develop or contribute further to the intentions of this project as an album. Obviously in the conditions to which Circles came to be, the death of Miller of course has limited exactly what this album could become, but as an album it would be unfair to overlook these issues and incorrectly regard the album as perfect just because of the (understandably) difficult situation to which it was created in.


That being said, 'Hand Me Downs' is a phenomenal song and stands out as a high point for the record, even when positioned in the significantly weaker second half. Miller's delivery is soothingly destructive on an emotional level, with Baro Sura's chorus vocals fitting the song perfectly. The song is devoted to an exploration of Miller's tumultuous mental health and the methods to which he would alleviate his pain, but transcending his own suffering the tune itself is a work of universal acceptance and growth. Miller has never sounded as mature and as capable of self-expression through his music as he has done in 'Hand Me Downs'.


Unfortunately this imbalance of great songs to less-great songs comes to a head in the final third of the album as Circles ends with four tracks that do little to distinguish themselves, resulting in an underwhelming conclusion to an LP with songs that pale in comparison to earlier entries. I do not often find myself critical of an album for issues of pacing, but the tracklisting of Circles is perhaps my biggest gripe with it. There is no real sense of conclusion when this project ends - it just sort of finishes with 'Once a Day' without feeling like the album has really *gone* anywhere. Though this could be some clever attempt to comment upon the untimely death of the artist, I feel that that might be ascribing too much thought to the construction of this project.


There is no progression to this record. It says the same things, sounds *largely* the same and exhausts its creativity too early in the progression. The order to which songs are organised in an album is an incredibly important aspect of its form and though it is admirable, and likely the right choice to bring Miller's fans fully-realised versions of all of the music Miller had left behind, the use of these four underwhelming tracks, and the decision to lump them all towards the end of the album, leads to an LP that finishes anti-climatically. It is not as if the final few songs feature significantly different lyrical concepts, or establish new ideas to Circles, instead they are weak songs that as a direct result of that decision reflect poorly on what was (up to that point) a truly excellent piece of work. Perhaps the album would have been better constructed with songs like 'Complicated' or 'Good News' further interspersed between less impressive moments - yet still maintaining their place in this eulogy/album as Brion hoped to do.


Ultimately I suppose it is better that songs like 'I Can See', 'Woods' and the final four songs 'That's On Me', 'Hands', 'Surf' and 'Once A Day' saw the light of day rather than simply abandoning them on the cutting room floor. Brion has clearly exerted substantial effort in order to provide as good a closure to the fans of Miller as possible, but in positioning Circles as an album with a sensational first half and a passable second, this album is slightly weakened by the presence of those underwhelming songs. Though this project serves as an excellent coda to Mac Miller's career, and does further embellish the output of an unmistakably significant creative force, Circles is less an exceptional album as much as a commendable exercise in remembrance and finishing the work of an artist no longer with us.

 

- 7.8 -

almost excellent


Highlights:

'Circles', 'Good News', 'Hand Me Downs'

 

Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and English Literature student at King's College, London and he should be writing a dissertation, instead of creating a blog.


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