How Atmosphere Went Electro

Why Lemons is like Tom Waits for Prince Fans

When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Rhymesayers Entertainment

It's just another part of the musical process to hear new songs in old ones. John Mayer listened to "People Get Ready" by the Impressions and wrote "Waiting on the World to Change," his Iraq-era Zeitgeist hit that could as easily have been titled "People, Why Aren't You Getting Ready?" or "People, Don't Get Ready, a Change Isn't Coming After All." The Roots listened to Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," and maybe Jimi Hendrix's bombs-over-Quang Tri take on "The Star Spangled Banner," and ingeniously set Dylan's lyrics to the melody of our national anthem.

Slug—who has covered "Masters of War"—apparently listened to '80s records by the Time and heard a protest album. At least he heard the one Slug would make, a less fantastic Bruce Springsteen circa Nebraska (Minnesota?), or a more closely identifying James McMurtry via 2005's "We Can't Make It Here," a song that describes a litany of breathing archetypes from the lower class we are all slowly joining, and subsumes them in a "we" that can't make ends, or sense of it all, anymore. But where McMurtry writes from the outside, like candidates stumping healthcare horrors, Slug plumbs the viscera of his characters on When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers), the latest album from Atmosphere.

When life gives you lemons, you paint that graveyard shift gold: Slug and Ant of Atmosphere
Dan Monick
When life gives you lemons, you paint that graveyard shift gold: Slug and Ant of Atmosphere

"Little girl was her first reason to breathe/And her little man was the first man she believed in," he raps on "Dreamer," one of a number of new songs to empathize with people who are not Slug, in this case a mom scraping by despite a harassing boss and a deadbeat baby-dad. Then Slug sings—yeah, sings—the following hook over a trebly full-band blast of synthesizer funk that wouldn't be out of place on a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced record from 1984: "But she still dreams after she woke/Tight hold on that hope/Sometimes it can seem so cold/Do what you gotta do to cope." Within two tracks, he's in wide harmony with himself on "You," which is nearly a pop rewrite of "We Can't Make It Here" except that he can't resist flirting with its put-upon waitress: "Girl, you look like you just got off work."

Slug, who by my count has released seven previous proper albums with producer Ant under the group name Atmosphere, forever finds deflating humor (and for all I know, truth) in making himself out to be on the make. "Make no mistake, he puts the man in manipulate," he raps on one of the album's few purely autobiographical tracks.

He charms like a greasy-haired George Clooney, but without the celebrity firewall against personal revelation—Slug can't stop revealing himself, in songs or anywhere else. Yet you suspect that his vulnerability, like the orgasmic tears of flesh cylons in Battlestar Galactica, is just another prelude to seduction and conquest. Is it a coincidence that Lemons (now there's a title to invite pans) feels your pain just in time for the "hope" candidate to captivate the Rhymesayers' audience, winning the caucuses in the label's home state of Minnesota? Or that so much of the new CD sounds like Minnesota back when we were Mondale-electing Princes and princesses, if not kings and queens?

Smoothly circling Lake of the Isles one night a few months ago, with a cigarette behind his ear and one hand on the wheel, Slug says that Lemons was originally a rap-opera double album about drugs and parenthood in a climate of permanent war (shades of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade). The title before he cut half the songs was The Tale Between Your Legs. What remains is music for a popular consciousness where successful social movements are entirely absent—a record for, and about, people waiting on the world to change—with a sound that's more memory than currency.

"Me and Anthony [Ant] were really fucking dealing with the '80s," says Slug. "We were dealing with Prince and the Time. It's funny because I started getting into things that I always liked, even since I was a kid, but never took the time to break down how they made it sound the way it sounds."

Slug throws on a slinky electro track from Lemons, "Shoulda Known," performed by a version of his live band, but with a slapping drum machine and individual parts sampled like records. "Minneapolis has had a history of getting it wrong," he continues. By Minneapolis, he means the sound associated not just with Jam-Lewis-Prince, but with Hüsker Dü and the Replacements—something brittle, thin, and trebly. "It's because they were making the music in a cold-ass basement or a cold-ass garage: The Replacements were a cold version of that type of rock. The Time was a cold version of funk."

Outside, the January air is still chalky. Lawns around Isles are still caked with exhaust-colored snow.

"It was this time of year that I was writing a lot of this stuff," he says. "I've been listening to this album for a fucking year, but it didn't start to make sense to me again until the snow came again."

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