“Why does everybody need me to stay?” Mac Miller asks on the first single from his latest release. He answered his own question with the superb posthumous “Circle.”
Miller’s 12-track album is heartbreakingly sublime, a portrait of a wry and honest musician acknowledging his demons but looking past them. “I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you,” he sings.
Miller died of an accidental drug overdose in 2018 at 26 and was working on “Circles” as a sort of companion album to his Grammy-nominated “Swimming.” Producer Jon Brion, who worked on “Swimming” and also produced for Kanye West and Dido, was asked to finish Miller’s work.
“Circles” shares the appealing confessional lyrics of “Swimming” but is more airy, more muted and understated. Miller was always an idiosyncratic artist, mixing hip-hop beats and samples with soul and warm funk, even jazz. Here, he is low-key, moody, spacey and anesthetized. He sings more than he raps. There’s nothing flashy. Everything’s thoughtful.
“Circles” is both spare but somehow full. A tiny hesitating sample serves at the backbone to “Blue World,” a lazy drum and piano do the same for “I Can See.” A repeated “eh-uh” runs through “Hands” and “Complicated” at first seems too simple but subsequent listens reveals a jewel-like construction.
The first single, “Good News,” is addictive and must surly be a defining song for an artist taken far too soon. Delicate guitar plucking accompanies Miller’s hangdog lyrics. “Runnin’ out of gas, hardly anything left,” he sings. “So tired of being so tired.” Brion is rightly in no rush to end it, and lets Miller go for more than 5 1/2 minutes.
Listeners will naturally focus on the references to death and they are definitely there. “Everybody’s gotta live/And everybody’s gonna die,” he sings on “Everybody.” But he’s OK, too. “I’ve been alright” and “I’m feelin’ fine.” His advice to others? “Do not be afraid” and “take a little time for yourself.”
“Woods,” which flows on a bed of airy synths, is Miller at his most seductive, funky and mature. It’s remarkable to look back and listen to his cluttered and more juvenile stuff of just seven years ago. Miller’s evocative voice even tries at a tender falsetto in “Surf,” with the optimistic lines: “Until we get old/There’s water in the flowers/Let’s grow.” That he didn’t get a chance to grow himself is a tragedy that this album only somewhat alleviates.