This isn't goodbye, it's see you later.
Real Estate – Atlas
Considering that Real Estate write almost exclusively about suburban life and are known to reference their home state of New Jersey decently often (“Suburban Dogs” features the couplet “Carry me back to sweet Jersey/back where I long to be”), it’s surprising that Real Estate never played a show in their hometown of Ridgewood until June 2012. What’s less surprising is how Ridgewood-centered the concert was: Toasted Plastic and Spook Houses, both Ridgewood-based bands that travel the local circuit, opened the concert, and the show was actually an event to support a charity close to the band’s heart. Entitled the Nick Currey Fund, the charity was inspired by the death of a Ridgewood High School classmate of both Real Estate songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Martin Courtney and bassist Alex Bleeker. Even after two successful albums that led them on American and European tours, Real Estate still came home to support the town they love, the town that formed them.
Unfortunately, Courtney and co. can no longer go home, and Atlas, Real Estate’s third album, describes this stage of life with intense sadness and longing. Whereas this group’s self-titled debut and sophomore effort Days reveled in love for the suburbs, Atlas addresses moving on and growing up, and this shift in lyrical content exposes a maturity that Real Estate had merely suggested until now. It’s not that these guys want to leave their past behind; if anything, Atlas expertly navigates through Courtney’s aching desire to return to former times. This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later, as suggested by the solemn, pained “Past Lives”: “I cannot come back to this neighborhood/without feeling my own age,” laments Courtney as he reminisces on a past he wishes were still his present.
Throughout Atlas, it seems that the main reason Real Estate have left the suburban life is due to touring. The album explores the conflicts brought upon one’s personal life over months and months of constant traveling: “I’m just trying to make some sense of this/before I lose another year,” Courtney sings on “The Bend”, a phrase to which he could have easily attached “on the road” at the end to reveal its meaning, but the subtext is clear enough. This song’s chorus nails the sentiment even further: “Like I’m behind the wheel/but it won’t steer”, Courtney sighs, implying that, although Real Estate is driving their touring van, it’s actually the other way around: the touring van is driving them.
“Crime” follows “The Bend”, and it’s also a thoroughly appropriate sequence thematically. The “crippling anxiety” of the verses (a phrase whose bluntness is unmatched in Real Estate’s prior catalog) manifests in Courtney’s fear of dying “lonely and uptight”, suggesting a separation from the love he’s left behind, at home, in the suburbs, where his past and his heart lie. “Talking Backwards” also looks back upon a happier time “when that night was over/and the field was lit up bright/and I walked home with you/nothing I said came out right.” Even though, sonically, this song is relatively upbeat given the rest of the album’s content, this stanza of the second verse is underpinned with a clear emotional pain, a nostalgic sentiment cut with unfiltered sadness. Its last line is particularly telling: even when reminiscing on a gorgeous, meaningful moment, Courtney focuses on his own failures. His inability to say what he wanted in that moment is, to him, another significant instance of the “crippling anxiety” which “Crime” focuses on. Furthermore, this memory is “too many miles away,” reiterating the distance this album explores.
Although Atlas is a lyrical advance for Real Estate, this band has yet to evolve sonically, which, given the power of their words, works out surprisingly often. Through its first six songs, the album rarely lags, although the instrumental “April’s Song” is a bit out of place on this lyrically weighty collection. Yet it’s only “Talking Backwards” that truly sounds any different than the rest of this portion of the album: its sparkling, upbeat, almost optimistic guitars completely contrast the dismal, lethargic guitars of its counterparts. By the time seventh track “Primitive” comes around, this sameness can prove a bit exhausting, although the subtle synths underlying the chorus do bolster this song a bit. Penultimate track “Horizon” moves a bit more quickly than most of the album, and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are fully affecting, so it too stands out slightly in this pool of repetition. Overall, though, it’s entirely possible to lose focus as this album progresses, since it can begin to sound like a loop of reverb-heavy, shiny-clean guitar breeziness.
Real Estate are not new to the complaint that all their songs sound the same: in a recent interview with Stereogum, Courtney addressed this criticism by explaining that he thinks “the album is a grower.” He may well be right: Days took some time to unfold itself, but once it did, it became impossible to escape. Sure, Atlas doesn’t offer anything quite as exuberant or as purely gleeful as Days‘ literally perfect third track “It’s Real”, but it doesn’t sound terribly different than its predecessor. This similarity makes it easy to believe that, in due time, Atlas will evolve from an album that makes great occasional sadness-sympathizing listening into a collection that, like the best of albums, can be played over and over again without any expiration date. And when that time comes, hopefully Courtney will have learned to look back on his past with a smile instead of an ache.