An 18-track hip-hop marathon that runs the sonic gauntlet.
When it comes to indie hip-hop and all its goodness (P.O.S., Aesop Rock, Freeway, Jake One, MF Doom just to name a few) Slug (Sean Daly) and Ant (Anthony Davis) of Atmosphere are a big reason you’re hearing it. Rhymesayers Entertainment is their baby, and when they’re not releasing incredible records from their fairly massive roster, they’re putting out Atmosphere albums without missing a beat. They understand what people want to hear, turn it on its head and always end up creating something unique, fresh and oddly accessible that can be immediately identified as an Atmosphere album. Fishing Blues, its eighth record, is in many ways familiar territory for the duo. But as always, the pair has new things to say about love, despair, pain and the seamy underbelly of society.
Coming in at a whopping 68 minutes in length, the album is an 18-track hip-hop marathon that runs the sonic gauntlet. Atmosphere has been known for using a wide variety of instrumentation, from pianos to acoustic guitars to flutes, and this album is no different. Most impressively, Slug and Ant seem to use the instrumentation to set one certain mood–the manically happy, bouncy, circus sounds of “Ringo,” for instance–then craft lyrics to offset that mood in paranoid, almost sickening ways.
While that may sound like a bug, it’s a feature. Slug’s lyrics are deliberately paranoid, telling disgusting stories about moments alone in the dark, revealing the truthiest truths he can muster. Whether from the perspective of a killer cop on “Pure Evil,” a creepy voyeur on “When the Lights Go Out” or the disappointing reality of your dream locale on “Chasing New York,” Slug doesn’t pull punches, nor does he give a shit how you feel. His aesthetic is grit on beauty, and Fishing Blues may be the best example of this lyrical/musical disparity since 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.
There’s a lot to love on Fishing Blues, like the title track featuring The Grouch or “Won’t Look Back” with Kim Manning lending her lovely vocals to Slug’s stark reality. On “A Long Hello,” Slug questions why the most popular songs are about sad goodbyes as opposed to the wonderful hellos in life. The album has some truly standout tracks.
Yet nearly 70 minutes of music about your deepest, darkest thoughts and fears can get oppressive. It’s always good practice to use art as a chance to look inward and examine the depths of your person. But sometimes too much is just too much, and what you find is a pretty sobering reality. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but after 70 minutes of it, you may fall into a funk that’s hard to get out of.
Atmosphere has been an indie hip-hop staple for a long time. What makes the duo difficult to listen to is what makes you want to listen to them. What makes the music so accessible makes the lyrics and stories of woe all the more powerful. When you think of indie hip-hop, it’s no wonder these are the guys representing the next generation of artists willing to spit reality instead of fantasy. Unabashed, uncensored and unwilling to conform to mainstream pop music tropes, Atmosphere succeeds mightily with Fishing Blues, but maybe just a bit too much.