An in-depth look at Mac Miller’s posthumous album Circles.
If there was any worry that Mac Miller’s posthumous album would ring insincere or illegitimate, it’s title track squanders any concern. The deep hum of a bass softly grazes your ears, lulling you into an air of intimacy that sets the tone for the rest of Circles.
When Mac enters, he sings softly. Since his passing, so many lyrics have become especially tragic, and it’s near impossible not to think of Mac’s departure as he sings the album’s first words: “This is what it look like, right before you fall…”
Yet Mac sounds so at peace here, so assured and assuring. It’s a heart-wrenching introduction to Mac’s final project, the more so because it’s as if Mac is speaking directly to us, his listeners, his friends, his family. Even as he reflects on his own habits and attempts at change, Miller has rarely sounded so fulfilled, so content. He just sounds… good.
As many fans have observed, it’s as if he’s comforting us from somewhere else, gently musing: “You feeling sorry, I’m feeling fine, Don’t you put any more stress on yourself, it’s one day at a time.” He speaks with the calm of someone who’s been through countless rock bottoms and has finally found peace. Since 2015’s GO:OD AM, a core value to Mac’s music reflected on the beauty of simply getting by – of taking each day as it comes and finding happiness in the passing moments. That idea has never felt more realized than it does here. – Sam Reynolds
“Complicated” comes in as one of the funkiest tracks on the album. With jazzy, stinging synths guiding the track to the finish line it provides an upbeat kick to a mostly tranquil record. This is one of the few tracks that was nearly finished before Jon Brion got his hands on it but it still manages to find its place right here at the start. I think it fits so well because here we find Mac in the same headspace, questioning life and the little things that come with it. With prophetic lines like “I’m way too young to be getting old” and “Before I start to think about the future / First can I please get through today?” the track really resonates as we fully see just how aware Mac was of his presence. As he questions why the world seems to be so focused on tomorrow he’s steadfast that he’s here to live for today. Knowing that he’s no longer here with us, the song provides the refreshing notion that Mac’s mentality was to live each day like it might be his last. – Lucas Frangiosa
3. “Blue World”
Part of the fun of growing up alongside Mac Miller’s artistic evolution was that Mac was a fan to countless influences, and you could tell what he was listening to as he was making each album. Every time I listen to “Blue World”, I like to imagine that Mac was religiously listening to 50’s barbershop quartets and French producers Polo & Pan at the same time. “Blue World” is probably the most outwardly joyous track on Circles. Mac is effortlessly optimistic over the breezy sample – it sounds like he’s having the same straight-up fun as his earliest material. So much of Swimming was spent assuring us that Mac was in a positive place, while his tone and musicality alluded to clouds that loomed large in his mind. On “Blue World”, Mac sounds victorious and genuinely at ease, despite the devil at his doorstep. It’s lovely to hear this Mac. And the song slaps. – Sam Reynolds
4. Good News
The lead single from the album and Mac’s highest charting single ever, the subtle, yet in-your-face “Good News” is here for you to cry to. Upon release it immediately gave all of Mac’s fans the reassurance they were looking for that Circles would be a tasteful installment in Mac’s legacy. The whispered vocals and incredible mixing from Brion make it sound like Mac is right there in the room with you. There’s a hopefulness in his voice, little glimpses of optimism from a man who sounds like he’s just too tired to keep singing. As if to try and further draw you into his world, Mac’s drowsy composure is reflected in the musical backing with sleepy, lightly strummed guitars and a relaxed kick and snare that sound like they should have been recorded in between the crashing of waves on a beach. The perfect track for any lounge chair, “Good News” reminds you that there’s always a better side to life. “Well it ain’t that bad, it could always be worse,” he sings, reminding himself that there’s still a bit of light shining through his window, that he’s still got a reason to keep going. – Lucas Frangiosa
5. I Can See
The ethereal “I Can See” finds Mac singing over a spacey, dreamlike soundscape. His words reflect the cosmic vibes and dream state, as he whispers “If life is but a dream then so are we.” Featuring background vocals from Mac’s ex Ariana Grande, her subtle presence plays beautifully here as she adds a gentle touch to the already tranquil track. But it’s not about Grande, it’s about Mac coming to terms with his place in this world. His second verse is very telling as he acknowledges his struggles with addiction, letting the listener know that he knows he’s troubled— “but that’s just the way it goes.” – Lucas Frangiosa
Mac has a long history of covering classic titles, some of which I’ll leave here for your listening pleasure. When Mac covered a song, he’d tend to take them at face value. He’d strip them down to their simplest chords and gently ease into every word. In his hands, classics sounded a bit more melancholic and simple. He wasn’t trying to reinvent the track, but rather wander through the beauty of the original. Anyone could tell that there was a sincere appreciation for his influences and idols, and it always shined bright.
His cover of Arthur Lee’s 1973 track “Everybody’s Gotta Live” has the same effect. It not only further reveals Mac’s far-reaching musical appreciation, but also his ability to shed new light on a classic song without really changing the song. With a full band behind him, Miller dials back the swing and groove of Lee for something a bit more straightforward, contemplative and somber. As he sings “Everybody’s gotta live, everybody’s gotta die” it’s difficult not to mourn, but Miller himself doesn’t sound mournful. His take on the song is thoughtful and economic. He contemplates each word and gives us room to do the same. And as he makes his way through his final cover, you can feel him lean on the side of life. It’s simple, powerful stuff. – Sam Reynolds
“Woods” is a hazy ambient track that strongly resembles the “water sounds” Jon Brion helped Mac discover on Swimming. It features the same bubbling, grey auras that eventually break into ascending, golden synths like on “So It Goes”. But “Woods” is not a leftover track. Mac’s patient tone and emphasis on melody fit snugly within the body of Circles.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how far Mac came as a singer? He sounds completely at ease as he flips through various vocal deliveries here. It’s lovely. He was really able to transcend genre near the end of his career, and he made it sound effortless. “Woods” makes me wonder if he’d ever try to make a full-blown slow-core album. His future was so exciting. He did so much in the time he had. – Sam Reynolds
8. Hand Me Downs
The only track on Circles with a vocal feature. Australian rapper Baro Sarka sings the chorus on this unfinished Mac jam that carries a very calming presence throughout. The relaxed instrumentation is accented by weeping synths and raw drums that compliment Mac and Baro’s chilled tones. The track comes in at just under five minutes, making it one of the longest on the album, and keeps a thumping beat present throughout. Lyrically we find Mac reflecting on his headspace, slightly arguing with himself at times, as he tries to talk through why his thoughts always feel so crowded. Here, he leaves us with one of those too good to be true lines knowing now that he’s gone: “Until the day we have to meet again.” – Lucas Frangiosa
9. That’s On Me
Prominently led by an acoustic guitar and a confession, Mac takes responsibility on this track as he touches on his dark mental state while simultaneously comforting the listener. It’s a beautiful intersection of wisdom from a musician who knew his place in the world through his own eyes and through many others. While Mac acknowledges that his faults are “on” him he lets through faint glimpses of hope, like towards the end of the track when he takes the listener’s hand and says “We’ll take the stairs that gets us into there.” He’s here to help whoever is listening, even if he can’t help himself. – Lucas Frangiosa
Confession: I’m a HUGE Jon Brion fan as well as a Mac Miller fan. When I first heard they worked closely during the Swimming sessions in 2018, I was ecstatic. It was the collaboration I never knew I needed – their unconventional styles and empathy for life’s inherent strangeness made perfect sense together. Although I love Swimming and everything they did, no track had the specific, yearning feel of my favorite Jon Brion music (which really highlights Brion’s ability as a collaborator and producer. He was there to realize Mac’s vision, not his own).
“Hands”, however, is the answer to that desire.
Brion throws everything and the kitchen sink into the instrumentals – quirky vocal samples, thin piano keys, dramatic tribal drums. Like his best solo work, it’s crowded and cluttered but not overwhelming. The offbeat tone and desolate notes resemble his soundtrack work for PTA and Kaufman.
And then there’s Mac, who essentially marathons through all my favorite Mac-isms. Anthemic harmonies? Check. Sing-song-y raps that mesh perfectly with the production? Check. A tight verse that captures his surreal wit, relatable humor and confessional insight to his flaws? Check. Mac’s rapping and delivery is peak on “Hands” – he sounds defiant and confident as he addresses his darker impulses. He showoffs the skill and ease of the Faces era but refuses to succumb. “Hands” is a beautiful collaboration, and I’m so thankful for this album. – Sam Reynolds
The penultimate track on the record comes off like a personal diary entry from a lost soul. Recorded partly in Honolulu, Hawaii, “Surf” is a string-filled confessional that finds Mac and his guitar reflecting on life’s ups and downs before breaking out into an instrumental jam session that captures the essence of a serene beach scene. Even though he’s only singing for a portion of the song, Mac shares some of his most insightful lines here right near the album’s close. In his second verse, Mac gets very personal, singing “Sometimes I get lonely / Not when I’m alone / But it’s more when I’m standin’ in crowds / That I’m feelin’ the most on my own.” Mac’s living for himself and while he’s content here, he still acknowledges he’s flawed, in the chorus singing “People, they lie / But hey, so do I.” Still, Mac’s removed himself from the outside world. He’s found himself on a beach thousands of miles away from home and he can confidently say “We’re all we need today.” – Lucas Frangiosa
12. “Once A Day”
Of all his idols, Mac Miller clearly found a kindred spirit in Daniel Johnston. Johnston is an originator of DIY and bedroom music, and like Mac, he also suffered from depression and substance abuse. He died in 2019 of a heart attack at age 58. Mac Miller produced an experimental documentary with him a few years before that.
Whenever I hear a piece of music that is beautiful, simple and transcendent, I think of Daniel Johnston. I also find myself returning to a quote from Johnston’s acclaimed documentary. It’s a critic from the Austin music scene who remembers hearing Daniel Johnston’s lo-fi tapes for the first time: “You start off hearing this noise. Then eventually, you hear The Beatles. You hear the symphony.”
The quote is meant to highlight something about great songwriting from humble origins – when a silly piece of music is that good, the means of recording don’t end up mattering all that much. Even in just a demo tape, you can hear the symphony. You can feel the words. It’s just good music. It’s essential.
With “Once A Day”, Mac tapped into something essential. The production is minimal – just Mac alone in the studio with a keyboard. But like Johnston and The Beatles, Mac uses simplicity to access universality.
Mac Miller was that kind of artist. He had every reason not to be. He was optimistic despite depression, ambitious despite criticism and easy outs. He could have coasted off his early image and done perfectly well for himself. But he had aspirations. Something inside him that needed to transcend. His work was always honest. He embraced his flaws. He was better for his flaws. They gave his music a singular voice.
Since Mac Miller’s passing, there have been countless fans, collaborators, and friends telling stories about what Mac meant to them. To me, Mac Miller is potentially realized. And potential we will never see fulfilled. More than that, he’s just an old friend, warm and honest. His music felt human.
His work guided a generation of listeners through the most essential years of their lives. Timestamped important moments. He introduced people to new art, challenged peers and listeners alike to think independently.
“Don’t keep it all in your head, The only place you know nobody can see.”
He brought people together. And still does.
It was a privilege to have followed his career throughout the past decade. To have been a fan. I’m thankful for this album. It’s handled with such care, delicacy and intimacy. It gives us a bit of closure.
“And every means something, When they’re stuck on your mind.”
Thank you, Mac. – Sam Reynolds