Atom and His Package is not for everyone. The long-since-defunct band—and we’re really stretching that word here—was the lo-fi synth-punk project of Philadelphia’s Adam Goren. Atom was Adam, of course, and the Package was his synthesizer, and that weird little explainer is the part that made sense.
Atom loved (skewering) punk and so he, uh, wrote strange little pop songs that are really only considered “punk” because they were definitively counterculture, somewhat regardless of which “culture” you use as the frame of reference. To wit: The band’s biggest song, “Punk Rock Academy,” is a clever, comic paean to being a high school outcast. Except Goren’s shrill, pitchy tenor warbles over an electronic beat and some programming that sounds like the soundtrack to an SNES game set in a haunted house; this is less Milo Goes to College and more Milo’s college roommate hates him. This is music for the kids who were cast out by the outcasts. And so, listening to “Punk Rock Academy” for the first time, there are three possible responses:
- This is the worst song I have ever heard and I hate it so very, very much.
- I do not care about this at all, in any capacity.
- This wizard has peered into the deep recesses of my soul and absolutely gets me.
I mean, look, obviously I’m a Category 3 weirdo and my high school friends and I were all very into Atom and His Package. One of my principal adolescent memories involves making a music video for “She’s in the Bathroom & She’s Shaking Me Til Tomorrow,” a mashup of an Atom original and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” By a select few, Atom is beloved. He was the patron saint of being thoughtfully unserious. He wrote a song aggressively advocating for the metric system, he suggested that the Flyers might have won the 1997 Stanley Cup if they had wedged a man weighing 1,500 pounds into their goal, and he wrote a birthday song for his friend Ralph which includes the following refrain:
Happy birthday, Ralph / I love you / even though you are fucking disgusting
Proof of Goren’s musical genius is present in those latter two tracks, each of which was ably covered in a 2009 tribute album titled Up End Atom. Contemporary production reveals the truly anthemic nature of “Goalie”’s huge chorus and the unbelievable pop-punk punch of every second of “Happy Birthday Ralph.” These songs, like many others in Atom’s catalog, reinforce a fundamental duality: In a lot of ways, Atom and His Package was a novelty act—a real-life Flight of the Conchords—but Goren, who is now a high school teacher, was also legitimately good at this.
One of his greatest skills was perfectly capturing the emotional stakes of the mundane, like being terrible at fixing your house or being tired of lazy racist tropes or being a chubby guy who buys a bunch of records that suck. That last one is “180 Lbs.” which isn’t my favorite Atom track but somehow feels perfectly representative of his ethos, his sound, and a very specific slice of time.
In the age of streaming, it’s almost impossible to remember this, but acquiring new albums used to be a zero-sum game. And so buying an album that sucked—an experience to which I was no stranger—was the worst. Atom lamenting his terrible record collection—on an “Ikean” shelf, no less—hits painfully close to home. I understand why Atom never found a big crowd—clearly, this is a weird fucking band—but to those who connected with Atom’s songs, me among them, it was undeniably joyous to feel seen by something so benignly subversive. And so, when Atom’s anguished voice screams out, “I have SNFU / and fucking Pennywise / oh my god, what’s wrong with me?” I don’t really know the answer. But whatever it is, I’m glad it was wrong with me, too.
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