Atmosphere is a Minnesota rapper/DJ duo — Slug and Ant, respectively — who have gained a ton of momentum over the years thanks to layered and diverse instrumentation, vocabulary a mile long, regular appearances from the default heartbreaker known as “Lucy”, and cleverness aplenty. Back in 2008, Atmosphere’s generally acerbic musical wit (see: “Trying to Find a Balance”, circa Seven’s Travels) and commentary took a sharp turn into deeper introspection territory with When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.
Anti-hero lyricism was replaced with tales of cigarette addiction, broken homes, dead fathers, and drug-abusing girlfriends. This record is pure gold. It literally does everything correctly from basic production to speech delivery to openers and closers that keep equilibrium and seal the document shut. 2011’s The Family Sign attempts to expound on these topics in a much darker mood, and in the downward spiral exposition, there’s an almost inescapable plateau where old demons putter about, waiting to see who calls their names.
Where emphasis shifts to greater amounts of piano, whatever positive hope and pep talking that was present prior to The Family Sign has vacated the premises. Anger and resentment don’t even get to call shotgun. It’s a spectacle of audacious and deserving condescension ( the soap opera-tinged “Your Name Here”), contentment bordering on “Guarantees” from Lemons (“Who I’ll Never Be”), and ever-sly rapports (“My Key”, “Bad Bad Daddy”). Picture every record in the Atmosphere catalog pre-’08 as a series of frustrated vents against the assholes and bitches in our world, whereas When Life Gives You Lemons… is a therapy session, and The Family Sign is a concentrated 12-step process at the tail end of accepting one’s fate.
Sonically, mellow tones (“Became”, “Something So”) get buried between trip-hop and occasional bursts of electric blues guitar (“I Don’t Need Brighter Days”, “She’s Enough”). SPIN is convinced that The Family Sign is far too lacking in the “jaunty pop” intermittently present on its predecessor, and this is correct (save for the more upbeat lover’s quarrel “Just for Show”) but in a different context entirely. Example: On “Something So”, Slug sings, “They tell me I’m not qualified to lend my voice to something so beautiful.” Why?
It has already been proven that serious topics are not beyond Atmosphere’s grasp, and The Family Sign takes a second or third listen to fully absorb, but this album is certifiable proof that the dark side has a melody. It’s not meant to be the release; it’s meant to be the somber finale, the funeral march, and the Twin Cities have a lot to be proud of. Despite a very muted plane of emotional resonance, the one tragic feeling triggered trembles like a fluttering heart: desperate to regain rhythm, yet assertive enough to pump the blood and preserve life.
In any event, this far surpasses Slug’s friend Sage Francis’ latest severe disappointment.