When an Album Sits near Death

Graphic courtesy of Audrey Normand

It’s weird to talk about closure when grief is still palpable. It’s weird to talk about finality when something is cut so unjustly short. Yet I feel I’m reaching a point where I can find comfort in Mac Miller’s Swimming, an album that once seemed too proximate to tragedy to celebrate, too full of life to process that it was shortly followed by death. I’m coming to terms with it as a fulfilling final statement, even when all signs point to the fact that it was not intended to be.

Some albums are explicitly about death and some become retroactively tinged by its shadow. Leonard Cohen’s fourteenth and final album, You Want It Darker, released less than a month before he passed, is undeniably about death. When Cohen revealed in a New Yorker profile a few weeks before the album release that he was “ready to die”, the public erupted. To assuage this wave of concern, Cohen clarified a few days later that he had misspoken and, in fact, “[intended] to live forever”. A title like You Want It Darker could be addressing (or mocking) an audience that expects a last project to be infused with fear and regret, and struggles to fathom that an 82-year-old man could be prepared for this journey. After a long career largely devoted to the contemplation of mortality, You Want It Darker should be received as a testament to a brilliant poet’s ability to distill his thoughts on a topic as amorphous as death and to find peace in the face of it.

I think about how album covers color how we hear their contents. The artwork for You Want It Darker features Cohen popping out of a white frame amidst a pool of black – his arm over the ledge as if he were coolly cruising in a convertible through the dark of night. He dons a suit, fedora and shades with a cigarette dangling between his fingers. Cohen took up smoking again at 80, honoring a promise he made to himself and epitomizing the luxury of dying on your own terms. In a way, Mac Miller’s Swimming cover can be seen as an inverted version of Cohen’s. Mac sits on the surface of a black box with his dirtied feet splayed out in front of him and surrounded by empyrean whiteness. There’s a window above his head but, with his downcast gaze, he appears almost too despondent to stand and see the blue skies on the other side. If the image is imagined as an allusion to the music video for the album’s lead single, “Self Care”, the oblong structure Mac is in resembles the coffin in which he found himself buried alive.

There was guilt that came with not being able to hear and feel the album as I had before. He had crafted such a personal and impressive body of work that I was now tainting with this heavy sense of loss that I brought to it.

However, framing this album solely in terms of death is exactly what I want to combat. After Mac passed, I remember being disturbed by publications posting pieces that collected lyrical references that he had made throughout his career to drugs, depression, and death. They seemed like clickbait that offered a cheap thrill to those who found this foreshadowing spooky, or were maybe meant to convey some moral about paying attention to ‘the signs’ or checking in on your friends. It’s reminiscent of when Bowie passed and people went searching in his final album, Blackstar, for Easter eggs that might have alluded to his encroaching fate, but this time, the eggs were not left there on purpose. These articles didn’t pay tribute to Mac as a person or artist, nor did they give room to those mourning, fighting to remember him in a better light.

This fight could involve guilt. I wanted to keep Mac alive through the music, especially through Swimming, with which I had been consumed with before it took on a new meaning. There was guilt that came with not being able to hear and feel the album as I had before. He had crafted such a personal and impressive body of work that I was now tainting with this heavy sense of loss that I brought to it. It felt as if I wasn’t paying it proper service, experiencing it in a way that it was never meant to be experienced.

There was also guilt in the realization that this album no longer served as a shared marker of a period in Mac’s life and mine. When submerged deep in fandom, an artist’s album cycles can each take on a distinctive tone that comes to be associated with a whole realm of memories formed in the album’s orbit. Through watching interviews, reading profiles, seeing live shows, and feverishly listening to the album, you piece together what the album meant for an artist – what place it came out of and what direction it aimed for – and also what it means for you. If you’re lucky, an artist’s personal transformation informs your own, and regardless of whether these transformations are identical, you become tethered to the artist simply by sharing a window of time in which certain songs soundtracked and shifted both of your lives. Yet without Mac serving as the lighthouse across the water, Swimming became a challenge.

What we want from an album that sits near death is for it to be so full of the dynamism of life that it refuses to be swallowed by despair.

What we want from an album that sits near death is for it to be so full of the dynamism of life that it refuses to be swallowed by despair. It is known that J Dilla completed the final mixes of his album Donuts from a hospital bed. The album was released on February 7, 2006 – the day of his 32nd birthday and three days before he died of lupus. While it remains unconfirmed where and when exactly each of the 31 beats that comprise Donuts was created, many struggle to interpret the album as anything other than a goodbye from a man aware that he did not have much time left. People have speculated about hidden messages in his choice of samples and his rearrangement of vocals, but even if we put his intentions aside, Donuts is a special final project because it captures a whole range of human experience. Songs, like “Factory”, express anxiety in the slight jarringness of how aggressively drums slap and relentlessly noises loop. Others, like “Stop”, have samples chopped up so stunningly that you feel your heartstrings plucked and their vibrations travel up your throat. Despite how difficult it might be to get the image of a bedridden Dilla out of one’s head – fighting with his stiffening fingers to make use of a sampler and stack of 45s on his nightstand – Donuts insists on being a celebration of Dilla’s musical genius, and more importantly, a celebration of life and all that it entails.

Swimming became salvageable and salvaging when I found the balance between the light and the darkness in it. It was always there but got lost in the wreck. The album opens with Mac sunken in regret on “Come Back to Earth” and then shortly after, there’s the buoyancy of “What’s The Use?”. You have “Wings”, “Ladders”, and “Jet Fuel” – all offering to raise you even higher. The final song, “So It Goes” is drained of vitality, but its bassline trudges on until droning merges into sweeping strings that promise a brighter tomorrow. It’s not Mac’s lines about death that send a shiver down my spine, but the moments when he holds on to hope. The value of being left with a recording of a lost hero saying, “I think we’re gonna be alright” (“Dunno”), cannot be overstated.

Viewing art as a means of achieving immortality is surely not a novel perspective, but I was wrong to think that Swimming could ever be something that was just mine. Mac imbued it with his whole being – his good days, his bad days – and no amount of sadness I brought to it could corrupt it or render it any less beautiful. Mac will always be there. Music will always be there – when you’re drowning, when you’re treading water, and when you’re shooting to the sky. Art is best when it shows us that it can exist beyond the dichotomies of joy and sorrow, light and darkness, life and death, and shows us that it all is what it is ‘til it ain’t.

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