In our current Ableton-fueled epoch, Real Estate’s unassuming commitment to craft seems almost deliriously uncool. Sure, the values that have come to define the New Jersey quintet—an eye for refinement and an unerring awareness of their own strengths—wouldn’t have been considered flashy during any period. But in an era where critical praise for indie-rock bands is usually qualified by some kind of statement about the waning relevance of guitar-based music, Real Estate’s ethos feels vitally contrarian.
Their third LP, Atlas, recorded with immense care at Wilco’s Chicago studio, marks the point where they transcend the trappings of their former lo-fi niche. On the strength of these 10 new songs, they’ll most likely begin finding themselves placed near the top of festival bills. Their evolution mirrors Pavement’s mid-’90s mellowing, or even R.E.M.’s gradual amble towards clarity a decade prior to that, but Real Estate’s progression is unique in just how offhanded and unpremeditated it sounds.
The album embeds itself in the Americana framework more than any of the band’s prior releases. Atlas’ reverb bath refracts everything from the rusted twang and jingle of late-career Feelies to the mantric hum of Roger McGuinn’s euphoric 12-string scale explorations. Real Estate debuted as a band intent on transposing the trippy cosmic guitar ripple of the Grateful Dead (an influence they’ve never been afraid to name-check) to the backyard Zen of swimming pools. But with Atlas, the lyrical motifs of primary singer/songwriter Martin Courtney have evolved to match the subtly broadening sonic scope, as “sprawling landscapes” and “horizons” appear throughout. Courtney has always favored plainspoken words and natural imagery, and he’s learned to make lines as elementally simple as “Don’t know where I want to be/But I’m glad you’re here with me,” (from stunner “Primitive”) sound like pure pop classicism rather than place-holding syllables adrift in a sparkling melody.
On “Crime,” another highlight, Courtney and Matt Mondanile play like the brightest pupils of that lean American guitar vernacular that extends from Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine (it’s probably not coincidental that Real Estate’s sophomore effort, Days, shares a title with a concise, pristine piece of jangling perfection from Television’s own second album). “Crime” is intertwining chord-chemistry disguised as ear candy, an expression of the idea that humility in service of song can result in idyllic guitar pop.
Real Estate’s growing ambitions are perhaps more obviously apparent on measured mid-album anchor “The Bend.” It’s a song that immediately recalls their earliest work, from the lawn-sprinklers-and-chirping-crickets ambiance of its percussive layers down to the open-road-as-life metaphor of the lyrics. Yet its slow-motion, open-skied instrumental coda plays like the music the band must have been collectively dreaming of when, a few years back, they were still confined to recording in Courtney’s apartment. The brushstrokes may be familiar, but the canvas has expanded panoramically, and Real Estate has brought the ideas to populate it.
Atlas might seem like an obvious career peak were this not the work of a still-young band that, from the start, has been predisposed toward graceful maturation. Undeniably, it’s colored by a willingness to look backward and add some present tense-finesse to past ideas. But thanks to the intuitive (sometimes bordering-on-psychic) interplay between Mondanile, Courtney and bassist Alex Bleeker, the album’s best moments, much like prior accidental epics “All the Same” and “Suburban Beverage,” sound like chance epiphanies born from fraternal jam sessions. It’s a quietly sublime work from a group of musicians who have always insisted—via their straight-up goofy music videos, Budweiser references and substitute teacher-like appearances—they’re just average suburbanites.