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Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageContinuing their never-ending quest to stay one step ahead of those who leak albums to the internet a few months before their release date, Rhymesayers (the label owned and operated by Atmosphere’s songwriting duo Slug and Ant) decided they wouldn’t send out promotional copies of their latest release at all. Instead of When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, critics were treated to a 16-track “greatest hits” compilation of tracks from the last 10 years, charting Atmosphere’s illustrious rise from Minnesota’s underground rap scene to a band whose most recent release landed at #5 on the Billboard Top 200. Given that their five full-length releases and four EPs have made them somewhat hard to keep up with, the set provided some much needed context, revealing artists who have been remarkably consistent in crafting the sort of soulful and literate hip-hop vignettes that would make them the biggest name in indie rap. Loaded with smart wordplay and ingenious production touches, those tracks read as the journal entries of a angry and wounded poet, a man riddled with insecurities and an innate sense of right and wrong, casting himself as just another in a cast of drug addicts, unfaithful lovers and self-hating artists. But, since no band can consistently make albums that are as good as the best moments from their collected discography, this freebie meant to pacify critics unwittingly ensured that the last image left in the writer’s mind was that of a group at the very height of their powers. Could any band, no matter how relevant, survive that comparison?

In this case, it turns out the answer to that question is a tentative “no.” Now in their mid-30s and no longer the angry young men of underground hip-hop, Atmosphere have settled into a place quite different from where they started. Still as clever as any lyricist in the rap game, Slug isn’t so much a storyteller as a moralizer, writing songs about the evils of addiction and inescapable poverty, his characters left more as archetypes of despair and hope than the startlingly believable men and women whose lives of quiet desperation made him seem like someone whose humble wisdom far exceeded his years. Here, he just sounds like a know-it-all. This time around, we get cigarettes anthropomorphized into thin white pimps on “Skinny,” and an artist who tries to “paint over” his angst with alcohol on “Painting.” We get two stories about waitresses trying to make ends meet, one a harried and harassed woman who works herself into oblivion over the funky radio-ready bounce of “You,” the other a tough-talking waitress who shares the stage with a homeless man who sees in her his only hope for escape in the appropriately titled “The Waitress.” There are two tracks with M. Night Shyamalan surprise endings, with the ghostly synth lines of “Your Glasshouse” setting the stage for a sick and hung over woman who wakes up in a strange bed only to eventually realize that it’s her own house and that she has been hiding from the extent of her depression and loneliness. Slightly more successful is the piano-driven pop of “Yesterday,” a disarmingly sincere head-fake that appears to be Slug’s paean to an old lover before revealing itself as his tribute to his deceased father. But for someone who knows so intimately the dynamics of angst and anxiety, it all comes off as theatrical slight-of-hand, something that says less about a lack of new ideas than about a struggle to find new insights.

That said, there are moments when Slug’s everyman instincts are particularly sharp. With only an electric guitar to back him on “Guarantees,” he adopts the garb of a bitter factory worker going through the motions of trying to provide for a family that is slipping away from him. Those themes repeat themselves on “Dreamer,” another hardscrabble tale of a girl who has to go to work to support herself and her baby when her boyfriend runs off, only this time with an only somewhat believable silver lining. “But she still dreams after she woke / tight hold on that hope,” Slug sings, his rapping increasingly giving way to a tendency to use more elongated melodies on his choruses. “Sometimes it seems so cold,” he continues, “what you got to do just to cope.” Best of all is the album closing “In Her Music Box,” with a gorgeously dreamy keyboard swirling around Slug’s heartbreaking tale of a little girl who sits in the backseat of her dad’s car as he drives around, smoking weed and listening to gangsta rap.

But as before, Slug is most successful when charting the tortured inner landscape of himself, however treacherous. Case in point is “Me,” with a nylon-string guitar and female backing vocalist creating a backdrop for a song that’s as painfully autobiographical as any in his canon. Going back to his childhood and tracing his feelings of ugliness and unworthiness to the current day, we see a lonely boy practicing kissing on his hand and feeling like “an anchor and a burden” to his mom. This leads him up to the present, jumping from relationship to relationship, a clown prince caught in a series of one-night stands. “You can try to fix my broken wings / you can know all the words to the songs I sing,” he sings, “but you don’t need to know what’s wrong with me, unless you think you want to come home with me.”

On the production side, Ant has created backing tracks that are slicker, more precise, and ultimately less interesting than most of those on previous Atmosphere albums. Favoring live instrumentation and vintage synthesizers over the crinkly samples of the past, the resulting tracks seem bloated and listless, perfectly manicured but lacking energy, sucking vigor from Slug’s often-meandering rhymes. There are moments when it all comes together beautifully, as the swirling pedal steel of “Painting” and the playful lullaby keyboard of “In Her Music Box” break new ground for the duo. But too much of the album seems positioned for mass consumption, with the cathartic sing-along chorus of “Can’t Break” easily the most dubiously immediate and blandly angst-ridden hook in the band’s entire catalog. If such tracks are the price of success, the cost is far too high.

All in all, it’s appropriate that When Life Gives You Lemons… will likely become the album that pulls Atmosphere out of the underground for good, as it’s just palatable enough for mainstream viability and just representative enough of their typical outings to resists the cries of “sell out!” What we’re left with is undeniably an Atmosphere album, but one that feels more like a band trying to remember what makes them special rather than naturally following their previous evolutionary path. No doubt, there are signs of growth here, but they come with a certain self-awareness that sacrifices at least some of the awkwardness and uncertainty that made them so compelling in the first place. Despite the highlights, there are few moments here that would rank among their best, none that should end up on a real greatest hits album.

With more live instrumentation in the mix, the album feels richer and more organic, appropriate to the longer and more immediate melodies. That said, the album comes off a bit safe and altogether less visceral than their previously threadbare releases. No doubt it will sound good pumping out of high-end speakers, but if you listen closely, it’s missing just a little bit of the soul that accompanies a less accomplished approach.

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