A window into the artist’s tragic yet beautiful soul
CREDIT: Photo by NRK P3
Swimming is Mac Miller’s fifth album, the final work released while he was still alive. It was released in August 2018, just one month before the artist passed away at the young age of 26. The podcast Dissect spent over 15 hours of music theory content analyzing the album and commended Miller’s “beautifully honest efforts to swim amidst the often tumultuous currents of the human experience.”
What makes Miller’s music so magnetic is his intense vulnerability and honesty. If you listen to his lyrics, you can hear him being completely transparent about his struggles with drug addiction, anxiety and depression. As someone who also struggles with anxiety and depression, his music is a haven that makes me feel less alone in my struggles.
Through a brief analysis, I will dissect the story of Swimming and include a breakdown of five songs on the album.
For context, the album Miller released before Swimming was The Divine Feminine. In this album, Miller takes the listener through the intimate experience of falling deeply in love. It features Miller’s girlfriend at the time, Ariana Grande. Following the pair’s breakup, Swimming details Miller’s self-discovery journey as a newly single man.
“Come Back to Earth”
The first song on the album alludes to the idea that Miller is using drugs to escape reality and “surf in the clouds.” However, he knows he must return to earth eventually, especially if he wants to heal. In the first verse, Miller introduces the symbolism of water in the album. “And I was drownin', but now I'm swimmin’. Through stressful waters to relief.” The idea of drowning in the waters points to the theme of Miller feeling suffocated by life. Despite this, he has managed to keep swimming, even in stressful waters. “Come Back to Earth” is a beautiful slow song accompanied by harmonic strings. It serves as a sobering start to the album.
The next song on the album is much more upbeat and features Miller’s rapping skills. This song takes a different turn from the first, with the artist hyping himself up. He talks about changing even though he’s not trying to. “I'm always sayin' I won't change, but I ain't the same. Everything is different. I can't complain. Don't know what you missin'. Shame on you.” Here he judges those who are, in fact, not personally developing as Miller is himself. However, he later seems to contradict himself in terms of self-development. “I keep my head above the water. My eyes gettin' bigger, so the world is gettin' smaller.” Here the water metaphor reappears. It seems Miller isn’t so much swimming but treading enough to keep his head above the water. He then alludes to using drugs to deal with life’s issues, further concluding that he is treading water and merely getting by, just surviving.
The fourth song on the album analyzes Miller’s relationships with both drugs and his ex. He addresses that these relationships are not perfect but still serve him in some way, and therefore he doesn’t mind the imperfection. The lyrics “I'm treadin' water, I know If I stop movin', I'll float,” point to the singer’s current mindset. He’s just staying still, and maybe his self-development has paused. Ironically, he mentions that he will float rather than drown if he stops swimming. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself of this false narrative because it is easier to believe. Furthermore, the song could have easily been titled “Perfect,” but the intentional addition of the letter ‘o’ at the end of the word subtly hints the listener to the next album that Miller was working on: Circles.
Circles was released two years later, in 2020, by his family and record label. Miller had much of the concept and work done for the album already. After the artist passed away, his family worked with his record label and producers to finish the album in a way that would honor Miller. Circles was a concept that Miller had been working on for a while, according to his producers.
The 12th song on the album is probably one of my favorites. Beautiful symphonies accompany the beginning and end of the song, but the music remains relatively simple during Miller’s rapping. The song is titled “2009”, the year when Miller was working on his first album at the age of just 17. It features an intimate conversation between the current Miller and the Miller from ten years prior. He talks about the unforeseen experiences the young kid will encounter. In the first verse, Miller raps, “Yeah, okay, you gotta jump in to swim.” Here the artist describes the beginning of his career when he had more energy to jump in and swim, rather than the present where he is just treading water.
“So It Goes”
The final and most powerful song of the album. At the end of the song, there is a harmony that Miller gave producer Jon Brion a specific vision for. Hours before his death, Miller tweeted that he asked producer Brion to make the song's outro sound like what he would imagine the ascension to heaven would sound like. The artist’s last tweet, which he published but then deleted within hours of his passing, was a picture of Miller listening to the outro of “So It Goes”.
May such an exquisite soul that blessed this world with special pieces of art Rest In Peace. If you are struggling with mental health issues, please do not hesitate to contact hotlines such as 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Ilyssa is an online writer for Rowdy Magazine.