Miller was also working on a companion album to Swimming. It was to be titled Circles—“Swimming in Circles was the concept,” his family recently explained in an Instagram post—and it was being made in collaboration with Jon Brion, the composer famous for scoring popular art films and making albums with Fiona Apple and Kanye West. Brion had shaped the aqueous, richly textured sound of Swimming, and after Miller’s death, he completed the songs they had started on for Circles. The results appear to deepen the story of how Miller was doing when he died, and how he viewed his own life story.
Posthumous albums are always morally ambiguous objects, as it’s not clear whether the artist would have wanted this music, in this form, to be released. The rollout of Circles has been a careful one, though. “This is a complicated process that has no right answer,” reads the note announcing the album, which is the only bit of promotion Circles has received on Miller’s official social-media channels. “No clear path. We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.” Brion had been working closely with Miller, and he presumably understood Miller’s creative vision. Circles is a pretty and lived-in amalgam of hip-hop, atmospheric folk, and funk. It’s like much of the music from the later parts of Miller’s career, but even softer and more plaintive.
“Good news—that’s all they want to hear” Miller sings in his glum, relatable mumble on “Good News,” the first single for the new album. “No, they don’t like it when I’m down.” Brion’s arranged an odyssey filled with gentle wonder, using plucked strings and a melody reminiscent of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Miller could be talking about a number of subjects, but the most obvious one is the public pressure to demonstrate success and happiness regardless of how he’s actually doing. Yet on the bell-laden, sullenly strutting “Hands,” Miller seems to flip that paradigm, rapping, “They love to see me lonely, hate to see me happy.” What they want, in either case, seems to create a feedback loop with how he feels.
Reading the lyrics too closely is a tricky matter when their creator is dead; who knows if these were the finished vocal concepts or mere sketches? But it’s especially tough given Miller’s subject matter on Circles. He works and works at the same idea with a single-mindedness that could be a sign of underdeveloped writing or a feature of the subject he’s writing about: stasis. “I cannot be changed, no,” he sings on the opener, the title track. “Trust me, I’ve tried / I just end up right at the start of the line / Drawin’ circles.” Other verses on the album portray him as stuck below clouds, in a basement, behind a door. On the catchiest track, “Complicated,” Miller asks, “’Fore I start to think about the future / First can I please get through a day?”