When Mac Miller sought out Jon Brion to help produce the music that would become last year’s Swimming and this month’s Circles, even he thought it was an odd pairing. The renowned producer and film composer was 30 years the senior of the late rapper, part of a different generation and scene, and someone whose extensive list of credits included scarcely any hip-hop (Kanye West’s Late Registration and Graduation are notable exceptions). “I think he [Miller] presumed, quite honestly, that I’d had some sort of musical prejudice against hip-hop or people who made beats or something?” Brion recently told Vulture. “These were his exact words: ‘Oh, yeah. Hi. I really wanted to meet you, but I don’t know if you’d even consider what I do as music.’”
Miller’s supposition, of course, was nonsense. Brion may be best known for his work with distinguished singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann, but he harbored no such musical prejudices. When you got past their surface-level differences, the pairing actually made quite a bit of sense. Brion is talked about like a musical savant, but Miller—who played the drums, guitar, and piano, and had bonafide production chops—was every bit his match. Emotionally, Miller fit in the Brion sonic universe, too. The films Brion has scored tend to be about people who are internally lost—navigating anxiety, depression, heartbreak, or some combination thereof. From interviews and song lyrics, it seems like Miller fit in the latter camp.
The magic of Brion’s scores is that they convey disorientation while also counterbalancing it. I often imagine his arrangements as wind slowly guiding characters from someplace sad to someplace mysterious. On Circles, Miller is struggling (“Inside my head is getting pretty cluttered / I try, but can’t clean up this mess I made”) and searching (“Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word”), and Brion’s sparse, brooding melodies buoy his honesty and vulnerability. Circles, even more than Swimming, sounds cinematic—and not just because some of the notes might evoke Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The music moves and progresses, even if it usually does so rather aimlessly. On ballads like “Woods” and “Surf,” the skies are overcast, and the palate is desaturated. The album begins with its title track, which opens with a soft chime and fuzzy bass loop, and Miller’s interior life is there even before he says a word (the first line is confirmation: “Well, this is what it look like right before you fall”).
It’s hard to listen to Circles without wearing what Brion describes as “loss goggles.” Dying can elevate an artist’s mythology. But it also robs them of any semblance of control. They can’t push back against false interpretations (something Miller found futile even while he was alive). With a posthumous release, especially, death becomes the dominant narrative. The conceit of Swimming and Circles is that together they form a portrait of a man, you know… swimming in circles. But on Circles, what Miller frames as stagnation actually sounds like incremental progress. Against the dreary sonic backdrop, Miller is self-critical and also full of resolve. He may have still been making mistakes, but on songs like the standout “That’s On Me,” he takes responsibility for his actions (“That’s on me, that’s on me, I know / That’s on me, that’s on me, it’s all my fault,” he sings on the chorus). These might have been hopeful moments had Miller lived, but instead those loss goggles render them even more tragic than the album’s downbeats: He was trying.
Impossible as it is to divorce the material from its author—and more specifically, the fate of its author—I imagine we’d still be celebrating Circles if not for the fog of death. Brion has described being moved to tears by some of these songs before Miller passed. The concision and complexity with which Miller articulates his mental currents and emotional tides makes it tough not to sink under their weight. There’s only one other voice on all of Circles; for most of the album, Miller is left to grapple with himself. “I wonder what they know,” he sings on the album closer, “Once A Day.” “I wonder if they ever even cared at all / I wonder, do they see their own reflection in the rain / And look away?” Time and again, Mac Miller doesn’t look away. He faces down his demons, flaws, and insecurities. It’s one of those rare times you’re left aching for a sequel.