Album Review: Real Estate’s “Atlas”

Eric Reimund

I saw Real Estate perform at Donovan’s Pub and have been delighted to see their profile grow since then. At that time, they were touring in support of their self-titled debut, which combined a sound that was very much in vogue – deep pools of reverb – with one that was not-guitar rock. The former was perhaps the predominant stylistic choice, with chillwave, that much-maligned but eminently listenable blog-genre, still having much cultural pull on the interwebz. It all worked marvelously. “Real Estate” was a jangly, sincere psych-pop-rock that saw meaning and struggle between the ease and breeze of the suburban middle ground: a place without culture or idyll but an awful lot of strip malls, sod and uncomfortably plotted houses. Lyricist Martin Courtney wrote on “Fake Blues” from that album, “People ask me for my name / But this number’s just the same / If this all is just a game / I have only myself to blame.” You’re given a mode of living that you have to deal with, thrive under or be crushed by. It’s a sad, sweet, privileged and historically odd situation to be in, these artificial estates.

Four years later, how have New Jersey’s native sons developed? Greatly and not at all. Their formula is still remarkably consistent: bright guitar leads, mellow, red-eyed, introverted vocals, a proficient and complementary rhythm section. Now, however, they’ve lowered the reverb knob from 11 to four and Courtney’s gonna be a daddy. These facets lend the record a more lucid perspective and a concomitant paternal dread. On “Crime” Courtney sings, “I remember when / This all felt like pretend / And I still can’t believe.” For a band that took to the suburban existence as though it were a vision in the water, the prospect of responsibility, commitment to a new life and embracing the odd dream of domesticity requires hard work and reflection, breaking down their old modes of living.

There is a palpable tension between the surface sweetness of “Atlas,” a tension that is perfectly encapsulated in one of its strongest tracks, “How Might I Live.” My most immediate reaction to the song is to its simplicity and its haunting beauty. At just short of two and a half minutes, it contains incredible power. The most immediate comparison I can make is to one of fellow reverb-kings Fleet Foxes’ most under appreciated songs, “Someone You’d Admire.” Compare the lines, “After all is said and done I feel the same/All that I’d hoped would change within me stayed” and “How might I live to betray you? / How might I live to see the day? / How might I live to say you’re not the one I love? /How might I find the words to say?” Both show real sincerity and self-reflection, a wish to change, but an inability to do so. Both songs could be chanted to the gods around a bonfire on a deserted beach and I wouldn’t ridicule, and I’m someone prone to ridicule. I’d join in at the top of my lungs.

Some more incredible songs on this album are “Talking Backwards,” “April’s Song,” “Horizon” and the aforementioned “Crime.” “April’s Song” is an instrumental that is almost laughable in its simplicity. Watery, arpeggiated chords underpin an even more watery guitar melody, as though the song was written by a band of 16 year old nice-boys geeking out to generations of surf and jangle-pop underwater in a backyard pool. The thing is, it all works perfectly. It is understated and melodic with chord changes, stresses and releases at all the right times. In “Talking Backwards” and “Crime,” two songs released before the album, lead guitarist Matt Mondanile shines. Although the band is cohesive and equal in their virtues, Mondanile’s guitar lines are often the song’s winning, shimmering face: accessible, beautiful, distinct, always drawing you in.

In the four years since they’ve been on campus, the band has grown and grown. Their appeal and fan base in spreading and its members have matured, but they know their roots and strengths. “Atlas” is a record that can embrace the past at arms length and hope for the future without knowing what in the world that will entail.