“I’m just trying to make some sense of this
Before I lose another year.”
New Jersey’s Real Estate deliver 3rd album, Atlas, a defiantly understated and gracefully matured extension of the dreaming indie-rock that defined the sound of their self-titled debut and 2011’s follow-up, Days.
Produced by Tom Schick (Paul McCartney, Sonic Youth, Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright) and recorded at fellow dream-delineators Wilco‘s Chicago studios, Atlas is an album initially easy to allow to float past like some kind of polite ghost, a withdrawing evanescence that doesn’t desire to commandeer your senses, so much as to discreetly invite you to lean in and listen. It pushes meandering ambience to the borders of barbiturate drive-time, giving the impression of indistinct delicacy, something liable to get blown from your consciousness with the slightest of a summer breeze.
That said, it would be a mistake to consider this lightness of touch to be a product of easy construction or arrested ambition. This LP richly rewards repeat spins and patient indulgence.
Opening couplet ‘Had to Hear’ and ‘Past Lives’ introduce the theme and the sonic texture of the album with gentle confidence: tight, exact arrangements, hushed drums, the interplay between Matt Mondanile’s languidly elegant lead guitar that wraps around Martin Courtney‘s vocals like an effortlessly natural duet. Courtney’s voice also sounding eerily like the transatlantic twin of Ian Brown, the same tone and phrasing, albeit deployed with arguably different intent.
Single ‘Talking Backwards’ continues the style and the thematic exploration at hand: meditations on youth’s retreat, an inevitable yearning for the past that speaks to both a dissatisfaction for the present and (an almost) calm acknowledgement of life’s inexorable forward motion. This state of mind seems to have been stirred by a consideration of the concept of a ‘hometown’ (the LP’s cover is apparently from a local mural in Real Estate’s adolescent suburban genesis of Ridgewood, New Jersey), the feelings evoked by an adult’s return to the streets and corners inhabited by a mysteriously recollected younger self.
Instrumental track ‘April’s Song’ is a laconic groove, sounding like a Belle & Sebastian b-side, bright guitar melody just the right side of twee and distorted organs lending it dreamy depth. ‘Crime’ comes complete with its own instructional tablature video, while ‘How Might I Live’ finds bassist Alex Bleeker stepping in front of the mic for an ode to romantic guilt. Closers ‘Horizon’ and ‘Navigator’ refuse to build to any poignant crescendo or underscored conclusion, the departure is marked only by more drift, by a sober lament – “the day is long but I’m already spent/I have no idea where the time went”
There are certainly intrinsic shadows amidst the easy-listening roll of Real Estate’s palette. The sound is sometimes reminiscent of Elliot Smith, the plaintive lift of certain vocal passages hinting at an aching emptiness below the polite trip-along arrangements. There are no sudden explosions of experimentation, sighs take the place of screams, and the beats remain too genteel for anger or passion. There are no demarcated edges to be found on this record, no jagged riffs or viscerally stark lyrics. This appears to be the point. Real Estate’s restrained aesthetic appears to be something like ‘don’t bash them over the head when you can whisper in their ear’.
If you’re looking for an elegantly executed, gentle soundtrack for a meditative road-trip back to your hometown, and a nuanced examination of the person who is returning, you’ll find Atlas the perfect spirit guide.
Real Estate’s Atlas is out now on Domino Records.