Swimming: A Case In Point
The 3rd August is undisputedly my day. If the day I was born can’t be my day than I don’t know what can be. No I never got to experience walking off the school bus to a flock of people screaming HAPPY BIRTHDAY WE LOVE YOU (they would’ve, definitely), and yes everyone was always on some holiday which somehow trumped my birthday, but it’s still my day. 2018 was a huge birthday for me, the big 18, which meant I could now enjoy a beer in a pub with my friends without having to convince bar staff that I had left my ID on the bus (the bus? In Wiltshire?) or that my name was in fact Annabel. In 2018 it also happened to be a very significant day for music. My phone was inundated with complex articles and pitchfork ravings of ASTROWORLD hitting the world like a psychedelic bus. It was a blessing for every teenager in the UK that owned a bucket hat and a ticket to a major festival, but it wasn’t for me. Yet, I glanced something else that had released that day under the boot of Travis Scott, Mac Miller’s new album, “Swimming”. Now this would be the part where I get overly sentimental and tell you that I put it on and wept for an hour straight into a towel, but that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately.
Growing up I didn’t listen to any of Mac Miller’s music. He hit the mainstream in 2011 with his debut album “Blue Side Park”, coinciding with my first year at secondary school, but still I resented him. For me at that time Mac Miller was a frat boy, nothing more than a commercial for Pepsi and pizza with his goofy PG raps that I couldn’t understand. He seemed more like an extra off Drake and Josh than anyone that could compare to someone of Drake’s standing at the time. And that was it for seven years. That was what I thought, and my god I can be stubborn so that was the gospel. Was I going to check out his new album on my birthday? No. When you don’t know what you’re missing out on, you can bask in a blissful ignorance and carry on your day to day life. Fast forward a month and 4 days and me and my friend are sat having dinner with my family when he gently nudges me with an apprehensive look on his face. In the times we live in today, a BBC news notification naming a celebrity is a foregone conclusion. “Mac Miller dead at age 26”.
I must have gasped and let out some obligatory “god that’s terrible” and then quickly set my focus back onto my dinner (the amount of food we eat in my house is absurd). But as the days went on and the tributes flooded in, I couldn’t shake this feeling. It wasn’t one of mass grief, obviously, and I wasn’t torn apart, but I just couldn’t shake it off my mind. I was confused because ashamedly I couldn’t have named a single song of his. As I watched these interviews and videos of him that people were sharing all over the internet, in simple terms, he just seemed like the loveliest guy. The feeling I was having wasn’t the loss of a friend, a relative or even someone I vaguely knew, it was just the feeling of the world lost this guy, and we shouldn’t have. That month I made a pretty half-hearted effort to listen to some of his most well-known songs, landing eventually on one of his earliest “BDE Bonus”. I cherished that song for a few weeks and then moved on. I still love that song today; fresh faced Mac Miller never reached a more distilled happiness than “this could be the best day ever”.
A few months later I finally got around to Swimming. I had listened to a bit of GOODAM but that was it, I had tipped toed into the track list of Swimming and backed out when I didn’t hear what I wanted to. But a Spotify playlist I was listening to in the background as I cleared my roomed introduced me to “2009”. It sounds like a cliché, but that song just commanded my attention. For a moment I thought my Spotify had transported me to classic FM (who, I mean seriously who, listens to classic FM? Does it come with Werther’s Original and a care home membership card or do you buy that separately?), but sure enough it was Mac Miller. My brain took a while to process this orchestral string section that was now bleeding into my speaker, but I was now interested. It drowns out perfectly setting the course for a beautiful piano riff that I can never, to this day, remove from my head. Then the vocals came in, the vocals I had once found to be jarring now made total sense. I didn’t know what the song was about, but everything made sense and it made me feel a certain way every time I heard it. Mac Miller has a way of boiling down the worst complexities of life into a sentence that’s casual and paced form can touch everyone. He humanises and embodies the things we don’t understand or like and lets us know everything’s going to be ok. In the car I decided to chuck the whole album on, hoping the quality I had become obsessed with in “2009” engulfed this album. And I was right.
“Come Back to Earth” is one of the most gorgeous and warm intros I have ever heard, unravelling its instrumentation slowly. The lyrics are so simple but so golden it makes you wonder how you haven’t heard them before as he sings “my regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send”. The sensation that I’m floating into this album has now begun. Then the beat of “Hurt Feelings” (produced by J. Cole, bonus) kickstarts the album. Mac’s rapping with such a casual cadence it makes it hard for you to believe he got out of bed to record it, but once you dig a little further past the sonics, the wit and the etendres are in full flow (see “I paid the cost to see apostrophes, and now it’s mine). The production is the definition of spacey, and there are no flourishes or indulgences to be found, but Mac effortlessly floats over the instrumental, oozing calmness. (At this point I’m wondering where the hell frat boy Mac is, locked in the Kappa-Delta-whatever the fuck, probably). Then “What’s the Use?” wanes in with a groove that demands a head nod, involuntary or not. It feels like the contents of something Snoop Dogg (who makes a brief appearance) would smoke on a warm day in Los Angeles. Mac Miller’s confidence and subtle swagger is irresistible as he transitions from rapping to singing with ease. This is probably the time to mention that by no means is Mac Miller a great singer. Some find it hard to get past it, but he’s aware. At no point does Mac attempt to belt like something off Adele 21 or wail like Beauty Behind the Madness, but his voice is pure feeling. His expression is as such that he can convey exactly how he feels with every word he sings. His voice is an instrument that compliments the aquatic production. I was absolutely hooked and was praying that the rest of the album lived up.
The infectious hook of “Perfecto” carries on the “swimming” vibe as the album arrives at its theoretical centre piece: “Self Care”. This I had heard before but hearing it in relation to the tracks that preceded, it fit perfectly. Its first half is unapologetically simple. “Climbing over that wall…” as mac repeats certain lines over a laidback flow that switches up and leads into another sung chorus, it’s a full-bodied sound. The beat and instrumental switches into this sonic boom of lush, muffled drums and psychedelic cushions of hard to identify instruments, which cements it as a “moment” on the album. “Wings” enters with a slightly distorted bassline, introducing the most minimal and bare production yet. Mac is adopting his signature monotone-ish rapping, but it fits perfectly. Although this song signifies a changing of the tides in an effort to “move on”, it doesn’t sound like it. Its easily for me one of the most devastating songs in his catalogue as he moans “I guess I just play it by ear, silence is all that I hear”. Hard not to be reminded of his overtly public breakup with Ariana Grande, and his struggles with drug addiction. Hearing this song with hindsight is hard. “Ladders” is up next with his most accessible effort yet on the album, but don’t let this trick you into expecting a drop of quality. In the same vein as “What’s the Use?”, this is a dance song, which still ties into the overall theme of the album (no radio grasping throwaway to be found here). Mac is trying to “find a way” on the edge of a cliff, and as the awesome beat drops, he falls down, crashing into guitar riffs and horns as he goes. “Do you mind if I blow your mind?” Not at all.
Up next is an unflinchingly goofy personal favourite (one of many), “Small Worlds”. The bassline is let free to slide up and tumble right back down over Mac Miller’s strange, and admittedly initially off putting, vocal inflections in a sunny day type of song. He pokes fun at the loneliness and expectations of celebrity culture (“hard to complain from this five star hotel”) and after the first chorus the song glides into another “moment” on the album: a guitar solo that is as blissful as it is playful before letting Mac enter with verse two. The song then takes a complete left turn in it’s closing minute to a sombre and reflective tone of piano as Miller bursts with maturity and wisdom. We had our fun, but please, listen, and listen carefully. “Conversation Pt.1” sees Mac indulging in airy, psychedelic production littered with high hats, and “Dunno” is a mellow wonderland of synthesiser which sees Mac committing utterly to singing his conversational lyrics. The album begins winding down in energy. A distorted voice spirals over a jazz guitar riff, marking the start of the bar – heavy “Jet Fuel” in which Miller is taking off in a series of clever and fun bars over a beat that waxes and wanes. Its Mac’s most hip-hop song thus far, and becomes the pre cursor for “2009”, which is only heightened within the context of the album. The album closer “So It Goes”, is probably my least favourite track, but by no means is it bad. The tinny drums and futuristic distorted waves that fall behind Mac’s vocals are intriguing, and leave you wishing the album wasn’t ending. All it needs to do.
The build up to Swimming was tainted by gossip articles and toxic journalists attempting to find a villain in his public breakup with America’s sweetheart Ariana Grande. His previous neo – soul inspired album “The Divine Feminine”, was the result of an adapting artist deeply fascinated by the love he found himself in. Mac Miller didn’t indulge in any of it. He didn’t release any controversial lyrics or provide a “hit single” with subliminal messages to fuel the gossip article fire. He was at a crossroads in his life, and he turned to the music, making his most cohesive and mature piece of art yet. Mac Miller is the definition of watching an artist grow in front of your eyes. His early frat boy rap was fun, but he wanted more and threw himself into the production and instrumentation that he grew up on as a child. His albums began to sound unique and musically rich, as his content matter covered the trials and tribulations of his life, and this album is the key to his catalogue. The result of an artist who’s comfortable to grow out of his original sound, to find his sound. This album isn’t for everyone, some critics (looking at you Fantano) even panned it upon release, but that’s ok. This album was Mac Miller’s last full and active contribution to the music world, and it’s a gift. A portrait of an artist in recovery, a recovery that was cut soberingly short only a month after this album. Mac would return with a beautiful posthumous release in “Circles”, but “Swimming” will always be my quintessential Mac Miller album, and one of my favourite albums of all time.
Rest in Peace.