Three years ago, Atmosphere released When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, a pseudo-concept album that got into the heads and told the stories of those rarely heard from blue-collar Americans. This was a departure from Slug’s usual focus of self-assessing his turbulent personal life. On The Family Sign the MC takes a step back into his own shoes for a look into the general concept of family life. He gets some well deserved help from Ant, the production side of the duo, as well as added instrumental support from keyboardist Erick Anderson and guitarist Nate Collis.
The instrumental work on the album ranges from slow, melancholy piano ballads (“My Key,” “Became”), to creepy, ambient minimalism (“Millennium Dodo”), to bouncy, poppy, party anthems (“She’s Enough,” “Ain’t Nobody”). The thing that makes all of these different styles come together is Slug’s rock-solid writing style. The man’s lyrics could hold their own in a workshop session in a topnotch university’s graduate program. His storytelling creates a perfect image of his subject matter, whether that means a suspenseful description of losing his dog while on a camping trip, meeting and blowing off a former hometown acquaintance in a bar or stepping into the shoes of an alcoholic, junkie or deadbeat father.
Though the writing is always engaging, there are still some moments on the record that seem forced and a little corny. The verse on “Bad Bad Daddy,” where he says, “I’m a bad, bad daddy” in his rendition of a small child’s cooing voice, makes you wonder if he really couldn’t think of something better to use to back up the otherwise strong lyrical wordplay. Though gloomy, the downbeat “Who I’ll Never Be” is catchy, and the drum beat and acoustic guitar line sound frighteningly similar to Everlast’s 1998 hit, “What It’s Like,” minus the castration reference.
The Family Sign finds Atmosphere back on his old level of sharp self-criticism, but the album is also a step forward for the whole group. The added instrumentation adds other levels of emotion to Slug’s already highly personal lyrics.