A friend’s sister has been in town, visiting from the Garden State. She brings with her the baggage of a gentler pre-campus life: sprinklers on lawns, the station wagon, and the sodium-glare of streetlights on wide tree-lined avenues. Nothing evokes endless estival evenings like Real Estate‘s second album, Days. But at a certain point, I had begun to wonder if Matthew Mondanile’s plangent, cyclical music would overwhelm the elegant simplicity of his childhood friend Martin Courtney’s lyrics, which are lifted wholesale from the imagery of dusky suburbia.
My fears were misplaced. Perhaps they will never again produce such an exquisite sigh of a song as “Out Of Tune”, with its effortless spiral of spectral synthesizer. Perhaps their days of depicting the birth and death of a day on the road, as on “All The Same”, are gone. Instead, on their latest album Atlas, impending fatherhood and the onset of adulthood have lifted them far above Ridgewood NJ, and thematic comparisons with bands like, say, Haim (a trio of sisters from the San Fernando Valley). The transition is akin to that apparent on parts of Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues.
The opener, “Had To Hear”, is unexpectedly jangly but also deeply pregnant, a portent of the gentle turmoil to come. A song later, “Past Lives” is anchored in surefooted chords struck on a mellow Rhodes—unusual, for this band—around which are draped the familiar, leisurely descending guitar figures. We are deep in the drawing room this time, not ambling round in a parent’s sedan.
A little like Beck on his latest, Morning Phase, this iteration of Real Estate is working within the architecture of classic American songwriters; unlike him, they are constructing their own type of scaffolding, rich in the twinned imagery of falling auburn leaves and of complex lives lived together. On Beck’s “Round The Bend”, from the Sea Change album (the precursor to Morning Phase), austere strings form a smeary, dissonant fog, over which the troubadour unrelentingly mopes for five-odd minutes without any form of tonal modulation or respite. (In spite of the description, I do approve of the song.) The equivalent centrepiece on Atlas is “The Bend”, a criminally autumnal fireside of a song. Just as it begins to linger on the same lead guitar motif, the song dissolves into a blissful, half-speed jam-band finale, ripely deserved. The band reaches an astral apotheosis, as might be surveyed from the upper reaches of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
“How might I live to betray you?” asks Alex Bleeker on his sole vocal contribution to the album. The song’s setting, “Down in my home, Louisiana”, lends it a spiritual, Southern confessional vibe, hinged around a comforting two-chord organ vamp. Despite its tale of the realisation of guilt, it practically bathes the listener in love. Elsewhere on the album there are similar moments of honesty, laid down across tracks of crystalline guitars and the lightly-jazzy drums beloved of Steely Dan on Pretzel Logic.
Atlas was recorded at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago, and much of it is indebted to the ‘dad rock’ that Jeff Tweedy’s band have increasingly dialed into. Here, however, familiar elements are recombined with the outlook of young men perched on the precipice of stability. The rhythm of “Horizon”, for instance, crops up across Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), and it sounds rather dated in these contexts. In this setting, it is refreshing, as if drunk for the first time.
“I have no idea where the time went… Across the kitchen floor / Stealing out the back door”.
On the wistful closer, “Navigator”, Courtney speaks of an elegantly wasted youth spent on doomed romances and fumbling liaisons. Look again at that title: Real Estate’s art has spilled forth an atlas for decoding monogamy and the eventual return to suburbia as an adult, doubtless through the front door. The album’s key lyric might lie in the refrain of “Crime”, a parenthetical account of parenthood. “I don’t want to die / Lonely and uptight / Stay with me / All will be revealed” is hardly, as a message, the bedfellow of the starry-eyed “It’s real”. The progression of Real Estate on Atlas is, on the other hand, all-too real.