Music Reviews

Real Estate Atlas

(Domino) Rating - 8/10

I generally like to think of myself as a pretty “chill” guy. For me, life is all about taking it slow and easy, and anything resembling something of a challenge is best avoided as to not totally ruin my buzz. You’re probably wondering exactly what kind of freeloading, East Coast slacker am I – do I prefer lounging on my buddy’s stoop in Williamsburg while sipping cheap beer in my violently-bright yellow hot pants or on the shores of New Jersey in cliché white-boy dreads while pretending to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or something chill like that on a cheap ukulele? Well, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter, because either way, I probably listen to Real Estate.

This is probably the exact concept many people imagine when hearing a Real Estate song – their simple, breezy beach-pop as seemingly careless and un-intellectual as a pile of crushed PBR cans. It’s hard to blame people for this perception on the surface, as the band’s music hardly pushes any boundaries and any sense of experimentation is often foregone for clean, simple song structures, typically un-specific lyrics, and the determination to never drift into the emotional red zone. But while Real Estate has never excelled in grand gestures or big surprises, few bands have undoubtedly mastered their own blueprint better than they have, crafting exquisite, catchy guitar melodies with incredible poise and band chemistry while slowly building solemn tides of blue-hued emotion that a pessimistic listener might miss. Atlas, the band’s third release, does stick quite firmly to said blueprint, but that subtle, almost dismissible emotional fog that’s been slowly building throughout their career is finally starting to further envelope, and is much harder to ignore this time around.

I’ve always felt that Real Estate’s labeling as a “beach band” by both followers and dissenters is highly unjust (maybe not as much as with Beach House, but they were kind of asking for it). My fondest memories of listening to Days were while driving through chilly, overcast autumn days, typically while going to and from school or something even less fun – a far cry from carefree summer days by the shore. And while the sunburnt lo-fi quality of their debut definitely exhibited a summer-vibe, their slow-burning song structures and mournful guitar and vocal melodies have always exhibited drearier, melancholic emotions than passive, easy-going ones. Basically, Real Estate’s music is – at its best – too cloudy for the summer sun; too subtly forlorn and gloomy to enjoy a relaxing day at the beach.

It’s in this market that Atlas sees its greatest advancement, as it’s easily Real Estate’s most tonally somber and overcast work yet. Comparisons to the likes of Galaxie 500 have never been totally far off for Real Estate, but on the album’s sublime opening couplet, Had to Hear and Past Lives, the two truly become kindred spirits. Past Lives, in particular, embodies the group’s dreary slowcore tenants, swirling and melting together some of the most melancholic melodies the group has ever written while singer Martin Courtney somberly coos about visiting an old neighborhood. I’ve never truly been dazzled Courtney’s lyrics, but it’s hard for plainspoken, sincere lines like "I cannot come back to this neighborhood / without feeling my own age" not to register when delivered with the singer’s liquid, despondent inflection.

Passive lyrical content has always been a common complaint from dissenters of the group, and for their past two records, this was hard even for fans to deny. But while it’s true that Atlas doesn’t change the fact that nobody will ever have a Real Estate lyric tattooed to their chest, it’s certainly nice to see the group exploring more meaningful lyrical themes than "Budweiser, Sprite/ Do you feel alright?" Among the most poignant themes explored throughout Atlas are that of aging and the passage of time, which definitely feels sincere coming from a group whose members are swiftly nearing their 30’s. Courtney’s lyrics are still too vague to be anywhere near autobiographical, but these thematic bummers still feel honest in tracks like Navigator ("The day is long but I’m already spent / I have no idea where the time went") and The Bend ("Have I not been clear / Or do I sound insincere / I’m just trying to make some sense of this / Before I lose another year"), with Courtney’s quiet unease further illustrated by Matt Mondanile’s reverberant guitar melodies, which seem to spool endlessly around Courtney’s voice and further amplify his emotional state.

I’d be tempted to say that Atlas is a much looser album than Days, as most of its tracks seem to glide along lackadaisically and feel as though they could drift forever on their alluring, full-bodied melodies. But this “looseness” is merely an illusion brought on by the album’s dense, sumptuous production. This is Real Estate at their most tightly focused, with every melody, guitar tone, and drum rhythm sounding pristine and particularly placed. This especially shines on Talking Backwards and Crime, the album’s singles, which feel cleaner and leaner (though no less dreamy and aqueous) than any past single they’ve put out. Atlas does have fewer standouts than Days purely on a songwriting level, but Mondanile’s melodies feel particularly vital this time around, adding life to otherwise forgettable and familiar tracks like Primitive. Not to mention the fact that Mondanile has found the absolute perfect level of reverb, giving his guitar a gentle, lovely push without ever drowning out the rest of his band mates.

Admittedly, Atlas is unlikely to make fans out of those who never found much to like in Real Estate, as the group is still in many ways the same group they’ve always been. Aside from a tasteful shift in tempo in The Bend and the galloping rhythm guitar found in Horizon, there aren’t many musical surprises on the album to really shake the band’s foundation, and those looking for something more challenging or experimental will still have to look elsewhere. But those who still find the group emotionally vapid or sterile, in my opinion, are even further off now than they were before. As simple and unchallenging as Atlas is, it’s undoubtedly the group’s most emotionally resonant album, both sonically and lyrically, even if Real Estate chooses to unleash them in a diminutive sigh rather than a fearsome roar. I would expect even a modestly passive listener to pick up on this – after all, it’s not like it’s anything too complex.