“Men do change,” John Steinbeck once admitted, “…and change comes like a little…
“Men do change,” John Steinbeck once admitted, “…and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.” A delicate change has indeed ruffled the suburban curtains that belong to New Jersey-born soft-rockers, Real Estate. Their anticipated third full-length, Atlas, is a mellow surveying of self-reflection and uncertainty, and therefore lies miles away from the blissful apathy that defined Days and Real Estate and Reality EP.
Real Estate gained Jackson Pollis (percussion) and Matt Kallman (keyboards) after signing with Domino and releasing Days, but as vocalist Martin Courtney puts it on ‘Past Lives’, “…it still has that same old sound.” The now five-piece still wear an admirable love for simple and melodic guitars on their paisley shirt sleeves. Matt Mondanile’s sunlit melodies and Courtney’s low-gain strumming walk hand-in-hand down pavements boarded neatly by tight snares, cymbals and the occasional bass line. The band saunters through a similar landscape on Atlas, but the blithe haze so palpable on earlier offerings like ‘Suburban Beverage’ and ‘Municipality’ has cleared. An unfamiliar musical clarity now shines over the new Real Estate, something no doubt attributable in part to Tom Schick’s (Wilco, White Demin) well-ordered production efforts.
‘Had to Hear’ sneaks into the foreground like a light summer drizzle, with Courtney’s guitar immediately adopting a more forlorn and earnest tone. A cheerful run through Mondanile’s major scales offers a quick pick-me-up; the sun still shines for now, despite impending rain. “I had to hear you/ just to feel near you,” tells Courtney, showing no shame in admitting to a discontent and anxiety foreign to Real Estate’s previous emotional range. Enter ‘Past Lives’ and it begins to seems as if, on Atlas, the songs themselves wander lost in thought, perplexed by their newfound soberness and bothered by why they no longer skip around like their youthful summer contemporaries, ‘Beach Comber’ and ‘Its Real.’ The last minutes of both ‘Had to Hear’ and ‘Past Lives’ are an endless meander through the voiceless twangs, ticks and waves that comprise guitar-based instrumental music. Here Real Estate exists as one-part cocktail party backgrounders and one-part art-house movie score – half uninteresting, half touching.
This confused self-identity shadows Real Estate for the duration of Atlas. “Don’t know where I want to be / but I’m glad that you’re with me”, Courtney confesses to the room of glassy chords and timely cymbal strokes that is ‘Primitive.’ The song’s pensive melody-of-a-chorus seems to substitute a dialogue between two reunited childhood friends, both knowing the extent to which personal change has distanced them, but glimpsing a fresh reflection of their adolescent selves in one another.
The reverb-laden notes of ‘How Might I live’ – bassist Alex Bleeker’s only vocal contribution – thump heavily on the heartstrings, echoing Bleeker’s lucid fictions of guilt, failed romances and betrayal. Here most evidently, Real Estate’s songwriting faces forwards. Over-the-shoulder nostalgia had always been their natural domain, and ‘Wonder Years’ is a case in point. Yet with Atlas, Real Estate’s defining retrospection has subsided – with life passing them by, introspection inevitably ensued. ‘The Bend’, an understated standout, treats this self-analysis with beautiful poise and maturity. “Trying to make sense of it all/ before I lose another year” is where Courtney sees himself. Lean percussive taps blend with shimmering string-work in what reminds of a spectrum of pre-millennium soft rock styles – The Field Mice, The Grateful Dead and even Phish come to mind, notwithstanding a midsummer Mondanile tune worthy of The OC theme song status, something definitively Real Estate.
‘Talking Backwards’ may appear to be the most optimistic few minutes of Atlas. Deceptively, it’s not. In true Elliot Smith-like fashion, Courtney masks luckless reflections like, “we’re not getting any closer/ you’re too many miles away”, “the only thing that really matters/ is the one thing I can’t seem to do”, in a smiling guise of up-tempo major chords and a cheerful vocal dressing. This irony suits Real Estate, and consequently ‘Talking Backwards’ stands out as one of the band’s most charismatic pieces to date.
Against all this, Real Estate has undeniably changed – Steinbeck’s wild flowers and all that. This change is, however, so delicate, so embedded in their musical comforts and genre conventions, that Atlas will invariably be mistaken by many as idle and unimaginative. These errors of judgment belong to those unable to see through the aural façade of Real Estate’s musical style, for the band have changed emotionally, intellectually and socially, and this manifests in their songwriting more so than their outward form. “There’s a lot more to it than surface value” tells Courtney when asked about Atlas as a whole. “I’ve always thought that the best music is the stuff that you don’t totally like at first [but] one day you’re listening to it with the right set of ears and you hear it for what it is.” Thus, here sits Atlas, waiting quietly to share its subtleties with any ears ready to hear its true value – an intangible but genuine shift in feeling, one from chilled-out ambivalence to ripened reflection.