The Family Sign (of an Impending Shark-Jump?)

Can you tell when a TV show you love is about to jump the shark? My wife and I are working our way through Battlestar Galactica and we just finished the third season. I like the series a lot (I don’t want any spoilers from nerdy Bollocks! readers. And let’s face it, the odds of you being a nerd if you’re a regular Bollocks! reader are pretty fucking high), but as I watched the Season 3 finale, cringing at the way the writers (stellar up to this point) shoe-horned the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” into the plot, I could see Season 4 out of the corner of my eye; it was strapping on the water skis and putting on its leather jacket.

My sense of  impending shark-jumpiness is even more acute when it comes to music, perhaps because I’m a much bigger nerd about music than I am about television shows. When Marilyn Manson tried to restyle himself from frighteningly on-point David Bowie fanboy to…well… whatever the fuck he is now, I saw the writing on the wall. It said, “Marilyn Manson is going to start singing about vampires. You can stop listening now.” When I saw a song called “My Three Sons” on Elvis Costello’s otherwise (mostly) okay Momofuku, I was haunted for days by visions of his horn-rimmed glasses flying off as he sailed over the glistening dorsal fin of a confused Great White. A song about the joys of parenthood is usually a strong indicator that a shark jump has just occurred or is imminent.

Atmosphere bucked that trend mightily on 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold (best album title of that year, by the way) and I was actually surprised at how well they could pay tribute to fatherhood without pissing me off even a little bit. This was due in large part to Slug’s (known to his moms as Sean Daley) ability to tell compelling stories with a playful wit and a wisdom that didn’t judge his characters too harshly (like “Waitress,” which featured Tom Waits beat-boxing). When Life Gives You Lemons also featured some great live instruments – grooving, funky guitars and the kind of rollicking piano that worked so well on You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having‘s “Get Fly.”

Slug and producer Ant (that’s Anthony Davis) seem content to keep up the live instruments and familial musings on The Family Sign, but the returns seem to be diminishing rather quickly. My first time through the new album was pretty uncomfortable. It’s generally slower and less playful than its predecessor (on “Ain’t Nobody,” Slug informs us, “I’m on that grown-up stuff;” it doesn’t mean he’s gotten totally serious, but it’s a far cry from, say, “Little Math You”) and I was stunned to realize that my immediate reaction was, “This sucks. How is that possible?”

How indeed? It’s hard for me to believe that Atmosphere could fall from Completely Awesome to Totally Crappy in the span of one full-length album (I’m not counting last year’s To All My Friends, the Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs, although it/they was/were excellent), but I’ve never been so let down by one of their albums on the first listen. Clearly, something wasn’t right.

So I took a deep breath and drew up a plan of action. I would listen to When Life Gives You Lemons and then follow it immediately with The Family Sign and see what I noticed. The first thing I noticed: When Life Gives You Lemons is still fucking awesome. They were definitely onto something with that record, and Slug was at his most lyrically sharp. That album was also a bit of a stylistic stretch from You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, so it sounds pretty fresh. The Family Sign doesn’t expand at all on the sound of When Life Gives You Lemons, but I can mostly live with that (“She’s Enough,” from the new record, has some great keyboard and guitar lines).

And then it occurred to me: if I listen to the last three Atmosphere full-lengths, The Family Sign is the first one of those with bad songs on it. There are two tracks on The Family Sign that completely sank it for me the first time through. “Something So” is just trite and sappy, like a hip-hop version of Elvis Costello’s “My Three Sons.” And then there’s “Became.” “Became” is the longest song on the album and it’s a real lyrical clunker. If we accept the song at face value, it’s the story of a dude whose girl runs off with wolves during an inexplicable winter camping trip (in Minnesota? That’s gangsta) and – Holy Twilight, Batman! – she turns into a wolf herself. Now, of course, we can take the song as a metaphor for a woman who is pathologically incapable of monogamy, but that metaphor is still pretty fucking clumsy. No, I think “Became” is just a lyrical misstep, albeit a rare one in a career full of gems.

I thought that, having identified the two major problem spots on The Family Sign, I could give the album a listen and skip the offending tracks. The results were pretty satisfying, although The Family Sign is still a bit of a letdown from When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold. The stories aren’t quite as interesting, the instrumental arrangements aren’t quite as funky, and I still come away from the album thinking that it would be prudent for Atmosphere to find a new thematic direction for their next outing. Slug is an immensely talented MC and writer (before When Life Gives You Lemons, Atmosphere gave away a “party album” called Strictly Leakage that ranks among my favorite hip-hop records of the last ten years and it was basically a goof) and I have faith that there are plenty of great albums in Atmosphere’s future. For that matter, The Family Sign isn’t a bad album per se, but it’s a little jarring because it’s the first Atmosphere album I’ve heard in a long while where I find myself skipping tracks.

So the good news is that Atmosphere has managed to avoid jumping the shark for the time being. The bad news? It would appear that Slug and Ant are, at the very least, trying on leather jackets and pondering the purchase of some water skis.

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