ALBUM: Sad Clown Bad Dub II
The first Sad Clown Bad Dub was exactly what it claims to be: a disorganized mess of songs, some live, some haphazardly recorded as demos. Slug’s wit was sharp; the sound quality wasn’t. In the years since, the Sad Clown series has come a long way. The thirteenth and most recent installment is a beautifully mastered live show from Minneapolis’ First Avenue; the prior four make up the noted ‘seasons’ series, some of Atmosphere’s finest and most widely circulated music. But back in 2000, there was no infrastructure to guarantee seven million views on a non-album single. There was just Slug, Ant, a four track, and “the sole intention to eat better on the road”. Keep in mind, this was a side project—not even a project, really, just a collection of cuts that wouldn’t make Lucy Ford. There was no promotional cycle, no video, no push at radio. So why is Sad Clown Bad Dub II the best Atmosphere record?
The answer is buried toward the end of the penultimate “Inside Outsider”. Energetic and precise for most of the record, Slug is wearied and beaten, grasping for the ledge, when he strikes upon the thesis: “I can’t play passive…truth hurts/I wanna rock the boat, but I wanna rock you, first”. It’s a simple credo, and one that the group would go on to employ throughout their remarkable run in the 2000s. But what makes Sad Clown Bad Dub II so striking is its commitment to this duality, the tension between shocking the world and shocking 150-capacity bars in Boise. The album is proof positive that Slug and Ant understood early on that overwhelming, inarguable talent was the best safety net. Even the sun goes down, and Rawkus eventually died—but if the beats and rhymes were this nice, they might last forever.
From the utterly bizarre and brilliant “Body Pillow” to the hauntingly sober “The River”, Sad Clown Bad Dub II runs the gamut of both Slug and Ant’s diverse repertoires. For a group given to reflection, the record is tellingly stuck in the present tense. “The Ocean”—perhaps the most sadly overlooked song in the entire Atmosphere discography—finds Slug “prepared to go to war, but scared to check the mail” in the wake of a breakup. The details aren’t important, and he doesn’t ruminate on how and why they’re no longer together (“you can take the bone out the chicken/but you can’t take my girl out to lunch without me thinking probably something’s up”). Even when Slug allows himself to speculate, as he does on “Fashion Magazine”, the song ends up back at the same place: with the girl sitting by him on the Dallas-Minneapolis flight. Whether the characters are fighting and fucking or studying napkins in Chicago, they’re allowed to just be.
Sad Clown Bad Dub II is also remarkable for the simple math of it all. A record that should be clumsy, scattered, or anything else that haphazard releases fall victim to is instead lean and consistently brilliant. There is hardly a misplaced bar or drum fill, let alone entire song. Even the sequencing is stellar—the chest-buckling weight of the real world bookends Slug’s tongue-in-cheek take on it, all while “The River” reverts back into the introductory title track like a proto-good kid, m.A.A.d. city. It’s a clear, no-bullshit record that can be listened to intently, studied, or just thrown on in the background—while you and your friends bullshit.
"I wanna rock the boat, but I wanna rock you first."