Reality Check: Putting Real Estate’s ‘Atlas’ in Perspective
by Kate Leib on March 5, 2014
Posted in: Album Review, Music, My Shows, Rock
In the spirit of reviewing reviews, my ongoing love affair with New Jersey bands, and diversity of opinion here at WRMC, I thought I’d give my opinion of Real Estate’s new album. But before I do that I’d like to say happy birthday to my mom and hi to Ben Goldberg. I love both of you more than I could ever love Atlas, so there’s that.
Real Estate, it’s been so long. I haven’t heard from you since 2011, the fall of my senior year in high school. The year I’d spend 22 minutes each day jersey sliding down Rt. 287 to and from school, just me and you blasting on the stereo. The days when it was warm enough to drive home with the windows down were the best days. The days when we made it through all the green lights without hitting a red on the Martinsville strip were even better. The days when I would listen to Days incessantly. The days when I smothered feelings of anxiety with someone else’s nostalgia by listening to Real Estate. Those were the days.
But you took the high road and I took the low road, and you left New Jersey before me. You were always one step ahead of my so-called suburban life; putting things in perspective and providing a comforting dose of home whenever I was away. While you were gone I started listening to Mac DeMarco, your slightly edgier college radio cousin. He’s pretty cool, but I still missed you.
My mom loves Real Estate, but she thinks you have a stupid band name, maybe because she also works as a realtor among many other jobs. She’s always been a postcard-sending, newspaper-clipping, “called you up cause I heard our song” kind of mom. For the past few months, she has been periodically sending me old photographs and childhood drawings of mine in the mail. Saving these long forgotten paper fragments of my youth from being buried in some dump, she endows them with sentimentality and gives them a second life by shipping them from New Jersey up to Vermont. Welcome to the Garden State of mind: we let the trash pile up and we pump our own gas. We live in the shadow of the city and we can’t see the stars at night. We import our guidos and we export our nostalgia. These packets of tiny memories are a both a labor of love and the bittersweet product of a house for sale. A few days before Atlas was released, my parents moved the last box out of our house and left the cul-de-sac I knew and loved. Before moving out, my mom took a picture of an empty corner of my old room and sent it to me. But none of it felt terribly sad because I was experiencing the reality from a distance and had already let go. With your new album queued up and my mom’s letters stowed in a shoe box, I always knew where to find the memories and your nostalgia always knew where to find me.
When I first heard “Talking Backwards” last month, it was like an awkward run in with an old friend from high school. Both of us had changed, but neither of us was going to say anything, a fitting situation in light of a song about the frustrations of communication. I have to admit, “Talking Backwards” warranted limited listening on my part as I greeted you with a fake smile and let your tightly crafted lead single sit in my iTunes library. But whenever I went to play “Talking Backwards”, I’d find myself reaching backwards in your discography instead, preferring to hear you talk about pool swimmers and beach combers, black lakes and green rivers, suburban dogs and beverages alike; “Budweiser, Sprite”, it felt alright. Mired in my attachment to the sounds of your self-titled youth, I lamented the inevitable day you would let something so polished into the world. I never wanted you to stop spinning dreamy songs of sweet Jersey summers. I never wanted you to move to Brooklyn. I never wanted you to get married. (</3 Martin Courtney, oh heyyyy Matt Mondanile) I never wanted you to grow up, and yet here you were singing about a long distance relationship with a girl I didn’t know to the upbeat strum of a guitar, and I couldn’t relate. A suburban dog at heart, I was “in love my chains”; enamored with the old and afraid of the new. Fear of abandonment couldn’t stop me from falling for your darker, second single, “Crime”. When it appeared online, I gave you a second chance to be, ya know, real, stealing away in the middle of class to hear you sing lyrics like “Crippling anxiety”, “Will you go straight with me?” “I dont wanna die lonely and uptight / Stay with me” in a bathroom stall through the shitty speakers of my iPhone. It wasn’t quite the Real Estate I used to know, but after you cut the small talk and let loose, suddenly we felt less like superficial strangers and more like kindred spirits.
Any remaining apprehensions I had about Atlas’ ramped up production quality melted away when I first listened to album opener, “Had to Hear”. As the soft chords slowly built into Real Estate’s signature surf guitar, I knew the album wouldn’t be a let down. A familiar tune now firmly weighted in forlorn longing rather than the floating summer reverie of Real Estate’s past endeavors; Atlas feels less like an idealized memory and more like a present reflection, marking a shift in perspective rather than a change in direction.
Having repeatedly referenced their suburban upbringing in Ridgewood, NJ on all three of their previous releases, one could argue that all Real Estate songs sound the same. It doesn’t help their case that Days had a song called “All The Same”, but that’s how suburban landscapes roll, and it’s still a pretty good song, ya dig? But how many times can you glorify the same “subtle landscape” before it gets old? How many times can you circle the same row of houses and bucolic lawns before you realize you’re lost and out of gas? Real Estate can be written off as “boring” (Goldberg, 2014), another drop in the bucket of washed up “chillwave bands” (Wallace, 2014), another bland slice of indie rock wonder bread (Me, Never), but I think there’s still something there. Though Real Estate’s lyrical styling has always tended to be rather prosaic, their straightforward, idyllic simplicity resonates sincerely, and their consistently signature sound is a comfort to the long time listener who can now find satisfaction in tracing Real Estate’s complete travelogue of suburban youth, exodus, nostalgic longing, and subsequent pilgrimage back to the motherland. Like the lovable but aimless Benjamin Braddock floating in his parents’ pool post-graduation, the Real Estate cycle of perpetual adolescence can only go on for so long before the band wears out their welcome. Fully aware of this, the recently married Martin Courtney contemplates the reality of settling down in one place rather than drifting in and out of context. On the opening track he sings, “my mind is drawing a blank / don’t know if I can go back” and on the next track, “Past Lives”; “I cannot come back to this neighborhood/ Without feeling my own age”. Though Real Estate’s music makes for easy-listening, Atlas is likely to bore casual drivers who tune lyrics out and steer clear of the album’s narrative arc. Thanks to the refined mixing talents of producer Tom Schick, Real Estate’s poignant and relatable lyrics fade into the background less than they have in the past, a trap into which their lo-fi vibe so often trips.
Suburban narratives aside, Atlas’ non-lyrical moments are the ones that shine the brightest. The twangy and shimmering, purely instrumental, “April’s Song”, holds its own as the band’s most compelling instrumental to date, a tightened development of Real Estate’s beautiful jam band sprawl, “Let’s Rock the Beach” circa 2009. Following “April’s Song” the instrumentation takes a slight wrong turn on “The Bend”, a track that is already running the risk of drawing unnecessary Radiohead connotations. “The Bend” may have taken a tad too many tones from the lobby of Alexander’s Department Store/Anthology of American Elevator Music, but is pleasantly redeemed in the final minute when The Sims sounding riff is transformed into a slow, sliding guitar fade out into “Crime”.
“Primitive” also reaches an instrumental climax of note following an important realization by Real Estate’s lead singer, the recently-married Martin Courtney; “I’m glad that you’re with me / And all I know is it’d be easy to leave.” Having resolved whatever suburban ache had been weighing on him for some time, Courtney is no longer entrenched, but ensconced in his location and his past from a more mature distance. On Atlas, Real Estate has come of age and settled in to their sound, but they signal the ability to move in a new direction on later albums. But not before returning to their signature themes of fleeting youth and Jersey brand topophilia on the album’s last and best track, “Navigator”, promising to meet us where the pavement ends, wherever that might be.
BEST TRACKS: 1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10
RIYL: Ducktails, Alex Bleeker & the Freaks, Julian Lynch, Mac DeMarco, Pure X, DIIV, Dick Dale & the Deltones, Wilco
Kate Leib is WRMC’s social media manager and co-hosts “Sweet ‘n Lo-Fi” Thursday nights, 8-10 on WRMC.
Atlas is out March 4th via Domino.
Real Estate will be coming to Higher Ground in Burlington Fri. March 21 with Pure X. Check out our complete concert schedule for more information.