How Anxious Music Creates a Sense of Place

From his grand discomfort, Slug establishes a sense of place in his life and in his music.
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"Sometimes I feel so—I don't know—lonely. The kind of helpless feeling when everything you're used to has been ripped away. Like there's no more gravity, and I'm left to drift in outer space. With no idea where I'm headed." —Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

A common thing: looking around and wondering where exactly are we going? When you are anxious like I am, the feeling of floating and aimlessness eventually compounds and your heart begins to race, your field of vision narrows, and your body reacts as if you are about to die. Consider an anxiety attack the most grating and deadening rush the body can produce without drugs; consider it the most discombobulating sensation. At any point, seated anywhere, your body can feel like it is halving itself over and over until you are nothing but a speck of yourself floating “like there’s no more gravity,” and all you want is that sense of wholeness and place. All you want is a single tether back home.

Our wants and needs come from discomfort and fear. We give advice because we are terrified for our next of kin. We demand things because we are like water: we take the path of least resistance—when we can. 

The most anxious music produces these tethers. The most anxious music—drifting and emotionally bereft music—helps foster a sense of place because music is procedural. Meaning, through the act of creating the album and us listening to the album, we work through the anxiety and arrive at a sense of rootedness. In 2018, no album is as tethering and rooted as Atmosphere’s Mi Vida Local, an album that is as anxious as it is dedicated to space.

“It has something to do with being uncomfortable in this era,” Slug told me in September. “The only time I really find comfort is when I am with my kids, or when I’m with Anthony. I think that I draw from my experiences outside of my home and outside of my workspace, and then I bring them back so I can make the people I love feel uncomfortable, too?”

It's in Slug’s grand discomfort, evidenced all over the album. Be it the generational concern of “Virgo,” or even the song titles themselves—“Delicate,” “Stopwatch,” and “Earring” all present images of small and precious things, breakable and losable things—when Slug steps outside there is an immediate befalling of anxiety that he collects like rainfall and uses to nourish his music. To what end? Well, in Slug’s grand discomfort, he establishes a sense of place. His only finding solace working with Anthony and with his family give Mi Vida Local a sense of rootedness and place that we would expect from an album dedicated to, say, regionality a la YG or Vince Staples. In place of sonic giveaways for time and space, Slug is providing us with emotional cues. The album sounds like the pursuit and construction of shelter, which may well be the blueprint for successful, anxious music. Take us there, have us face the fear, and then give us a place to go. Anxious music provides the relatable base, but it must also stop us from drifting “like a little lost Sputnik,” as Murakami writes.

There are days when the brain fog is too much and I cannot see my own two hands in front of me, let alone my thoughts. Constructing a sentence seems as impossible as constructing a city, and the way to cut through that proverbial tension is with this record, this record that sounds so mealy and true to life. The way Ant produces on Mi Vida Local, it plays as if every haggard breath Slug has taken across his years as a man on the edge have been transposed into guitar licks and bass lines to the point of crafting something so mealy and honest. Bars about pessimism and listlessness are complemented by equal parts viscous and sinuous production. The melodies are shockingly lissome, almost pliable, but they hold us—and challenge and hold Slug—and hold this shelter together.

Of course, Mi Vida Local works in this comforting way because Atmosphere is a duo. Anthony exists as a living, breathing, and thoughtful sounding board for Slug both in their personal lives and on wax. Without Anthony, as it seems, Slug would be all but drowning in his anxiety, swallowing discomfort into his lungs and allowing it to become a dangerous lead in his chest. No matter, their working relationship is a byproduct of tension, release, and place. The duo of Atmosphere itself acts as a location unto itself, a safe haven as we often erect between ourselves and our loved ones.

Later in our interview, Slug offered this personal truth: “I’m full of discomfort.” All of this roiling emotion, and yet Mi Vida Local is not an embittered or off-putting listen. Mi Vida Local, at its core, is about bracing for a looming and seemingly endless discomfort. It's about the sensation of without and our hunger for a sense of place that is otherwise being ravaged. As a contrast to that, Slug and Ant seem to be in conversation, attempting to save each other. The album sounds so earthy and scared, and sacred, like a thicket of cords plodding through the earth to keep us in place.

“This might be the most… insular writing I’ve done publicly, in a long time,” Slug said. “As I was rounding out the album, it was starting to write itself for me. I really tried to keep it as grassroots and organic to my literal being, so that I wasn’t writing any songs about my view on Brexit [laughs]. I kept it super close to home.” 

Again, this is a byproduct of living in and bearing discomfort. The natural reaction is to do everything in our power to prevent that feeling. During our interview, Slug discussed consequence and the importance of being better for future generations, the theme of “Virgo,” and with Mi Vida Local, with the shelter that he creates on the album, he is being better for himself and for every solitary listener. The album offers understanding, but it also offers reprieve.

Yet, Mi Vida Local, like all things soothing, is no magic pill. Slug is aware of that, too. “If what you’re striving for is to attain that comfort, I’m here to remind you that it doesn’t fucking exist,” he concluded during our interview. As in, there is no single solution, there is no cure to discomfort, but there are options

The sensation of place summoned by Mi Vida Local, the hyper-specificity of home and surroundings that the album provides, is one option to appraise and combat the discomfort. The relationship Ant and Slug so evidently husband and nurture, transposed to our personal lives, is yet another option. Each song is riddled with sobering commentary and more options to combat discomfort, and all of them work in tandem to make Mi Vida Local a pin on a map, not an album floating in the ether.

Mi Vida Local ends with “Graffiti,” which includes a bar about necessity and symbiosis: “You're tryna make me feel like somebody needs me.” To that, I write, yes we are. To a greater point, yes, we, the collective listeners, do. Such is the way music weaves and stands as a structure we can all commune under together. The album is a destination point, but it is also the journey of how we would ever all arrive at such a place. It tells two stories: the story of fear and the story of security. It is, as Slug said, super high-concept, but at its heart, the album is a home and a place for us to gather. No more than an option, Mi Vida Local and the place it creates is a very worthy choice. 

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