Music Reviews
Magic Signs

Martin Courtney Magic Signs

(Domino) Rating - 8/10

On his second solo album, Martin Courtney hearkens back to the memories that get lost over time. The singer-songwriter—better known as the co-founder of perennial aughts jangle rockers Real Estate—attempts to hold on to them as they fade over time, an unassuming practice that is trickier to accomplish than one might think. It’s the kind of concept Courtney has explored to some degree time and time again with his band, the arguably pitch-perfect 2011 LP Days documenting everyday suburbia at its most sublime. But rather than acclimatizing to these experiences in the here and now, Courtney now hopes to recall the past before it's too late.

At first, Courtney doesn't even know how or where to begin. On the Americana-tinged opening track, Corncob, struggles to recall an old acquaintance whose name he can remember—coming to admit defeat when realizing it's okay to let it go. It might not be the most compelling of song ideas, but not many songwriters can convincingly trace these pensive thoughts as Courtney does. Reconnecting with the suburban sprawl of New Jersey became a lifeline for Courtney during the COVID-19 pandemic, mapping out the places he thought he knew or had not discovered as he drove around with his friends with no destination in mind.

That period of pause became a gateway for Courtney to write Magic Signs, setting aside chunks of time to write songs at night when his wife was working and while the kids were asleep. He describes this process in Living Rooms, fighting the cold in his basement while reminiscing about the goodwill around him. But for the most part, Courtney is consistent with his retreats into the past—whether he's enjoying the sun glow on a long day (Shoes), conjuring images of young love (Merlin), or filling up the spaces that have faded for good (Outcome). The vacant houses and front porches become empty photographic images imprinted in his mind, but Courtney is glad to look back on them all the same.

Courtney enlisted the help of producer/engineer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Tokyo Police Club, Kurt Vile) to enhance these songs, which they imbue with a warm intimacy akin to the producer's work with the late Smith. Schnapf provides an effortless treatment to the uncomplicated arrangements Courtney wrote, some of the strongest Courtney has written since his 2017 LP with Real Estate, In Mind. A homely, languid warmth radiates through the stately arpeggios of Shoes, ending with a soft, resplendent keyboard tone that lingers long after it ends. The vivid imagery of Merlin resonates even more when paired against his glistening, jangly guitars, which drift into a sublime coda comparable to the more delightly winding moments of Days.

Even at its rowdiest, like on the amicable fuzz of Sailboat, Courtney adopts a similar method to likeminded New Jersey trio Yo La Tengo: crank up the distortion without losing its center. He does what best serves the song instead of sculpting them too much to the point where they lose their purpose, as he aptly put it on one of the standout tracks on In Mind. Courtney might give the impression that he's aiming for a low-stakes, minor effort to pass the time in Magic Signs, a stopgap until moving on to a relatively more ambitious project. But he couldn't be more in his element, shifting in and out of focus as he recaptures his youthful wonder—and, really, isn't getting there a task in itself?