How Atmosphere Went Electro

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 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.

"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."

By the time you read this, Slug will have done a dozen of these one-on-one drive-arounds with critics (publicists held advance copies until days before the release date last week). The promo campaign behind Lemons includes YouTube webisodes, music videos, an international tour arriving in Minneapolis May 25, and press mailings that contain moldy lemons painted gold. But Slug's commercial ambitions appear to stop at the studio door—never mind the new poppiness of some songs. The first single he chose wasn't "You," but "Shoulda Known" backed with the spare "Guarantees," which contains no sound other than the guitar strum of Nate Collis, who co-wrote, and the relaxed massage-to-a-punch Method rapping of Slug. In the first person now, he's a non-deadbeat-pop bellying up to happy hour, the better "to politic and tap the power" while talking to the television set. "Can't save no nest egg," he rants. "In fact this nest is rented/In fact that rent is late."

There are big-name guests on Lemons, but Slug asks that I withhold them until the album's release: Tom Waits beatboxing behind "The Waitress," which sounds like Waits in Short Cuts, and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe singing backup against the doomy "Your Glasshouse"—a vividly etched hangover, which Slug says is a metaphor for political awakening. It sounds like something dragged out of Escape from New York.

Playing the song in his truck before heading home to his south Minneapolis house and serious girlfriend, the mustachioed father of a teenager seems comfortable where the music feels imperiled. "I'm gettin' fat," he says, slapping his tummy. "And I like it."

Slug is not worried about seducing new fans. He's happy to "lock in" the old ones "for life." (Atmosphere released a free album for download over Christmas.) The erstwhile Sean Daley has reversed the electrical current of identification that many young listeners appear to feel, some actually crying when they meet him, and I wonder if Slug has teased out the young parents and self-medicaters on Lemons from real conversations after shows. If there's a "career plan" here, it somehow includes collaborating with '60s and '70s cult comedian Blowfly, as well as local reality rappers Muja Messiah and Moochy C, and possibly releasing Atmosphere's already-completed next album for free, again.

So is Lemons as good as its intentions? The music is masterly—it sounds startlingly out-of-time, with Ant's hermetic beats at a cool remove from loops of live music (piano, lap steel, trumpet, flute, popping bass) orchestrated by Ant and Collis and recorded by Joe Mabbott at the Hideaway studio in St. Paul. Slug's flow, more and more, finds beauty in simplicity. The album builds like a film—this is the first Atmosphere I don't skip through—and deepens in your memory. (Note to smokers: "The Skinny" is not about prostitution.)

But most of Slug's stories about people-that-aren't-Slug don't approach the graceful force of confessionals such as "Yesterday," which starts out sounding like another dead homiez tune, and turns out to be... Well, I don't want to give it away. Just say that the last line (actually the last word of the last line) delivers a sharper chill up the spine than the punch line of Tom Waits's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," and a lump in the throat.

The song made me want to call my Obama-backing dad, and the family members supporting McCain and Clinton, too. That's not quite changing the world, but it's something.

(Special thanks to Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus for their EMP Pop Conference presentations, without which I would have known less, or nothing, about the Mayer, McMurtry, and Roots songs.)

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