For years, Real Estate have cornered the market of highly listenable and multifaceted background music. That may come off as a critique, but it’s quite the accomplishment to be a band that’s ambient yet catchy, soft-spoken yet impactful. Their particular flavor of dream pop never runs too hot or too cold, always hitting in just the right spot.
With that in mind, it’s a surprise to learn that their fifth album, The Main Thing, is named in part for the Roxy Music song of the same name. Bryan Ferry’s group was anything but ambient, bringing flamboyance and flash. If Real Estate are normcore, then Roxy Music is high kitsch.
The title itself luckily doesn’t indicate a shift to a new style (though seeing Real Estate try to imitate Roxy Music would be quite a sight), but an “impossible goalpost” for the high quality they hope to achieve, according to songwriter Martin Courtney (vox, guitar). And they do just that, all while plumbing new emotional depths and still maintaining their usual sonic homeostasis.
“Friday” opens the album with rich, velvety textures: sweeping synth, funky bass and some of the band’s smoothest vocal harmonies to date. The repetitive groove draws you in, methodically building the kind of song you could easily lose yourself in on a blistering hot day. “Paper Cup,” which features Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, marks one of Real Estate’s most appropriate collaborations to date. Disco-tinged strings immediately bring to mind Boney M., and Meath’s silky voice complements Courtney’s so well on the chorus that it’s a shame she’s not utilized more. Expect to hear this at every barbeque or rooftop party come summer.
Lyrically, Courtney and fellow band members are most successful when painting vivid personal portraits. “Falling Down,” a cozy song strongly reminiscent of Yo La Tengo, depicts an autumn windstorm. Courtney’s gentle vocals offer up the evocative lyrics, “Wake up cold, the moon still gold / The kitchen floor is freezing / The radiators aren’t even warm / But you are and you’re upstairs sleeping.” You can practically feel your bare feet slapping against your cold kitchen tiles as the temperature outside begins to drop.
The unrelenting progression of time serves as a central theme on The Main Thing (“25 in 2010 / Never going back again / Other side of a locked door / 39 in ’24,” Courtney sings on “Shallow Sun”), culminating in penultimate song “Procession,” which captures the notion that you can never truly return to your past, no matter how hard you try. “Well the former generations / Tried to keep the dream intact / But I’ve always been impatient / It sweetens looking back,” feels like a rallying cry for millennials, who are prone to nostalgia but have an increasingly shaky future ahead of us. However, the band ultimately finds overindulgent reminiscence useless. “Cracked and opaque glasses / Maddeningly useless,” Courtney utters over twangy guitar on “Silent World,” rejecting the notion that he’s looking back through rose-colored frames as he worries about what the decades to come have in store for his children.
The Main Thing contains some firsts for the band, including lead guitarist Julian Lynch’s first song written for Real Estate, “Also A But.” With sinister synth and an underlying psychedelic vibe, Lynch channels the darker moments on an otherwise warm record. The instrumental “Sting” was composed by keyboardist Matt Kallman, the muted thudding of drums and stabs of piano essentially rendering it their take on elevator music (really, really good elevator music).
Throughout the 2010s, Real Estate time and time again proved themselves one of music’s most consistent indie rock groups, surviving a major lineup change and putting out albums that serve as focal points for the last decade. The Main Thing reconfirms this stability upon the start of the 2020s and indicates new possibilities as band members dip their toes into new waters. Real Estate are never going to be the band to surprise with a major musical left turn, but subtle changes on The Main Thing lead to breathtaking results.
Revisit Real Estate’s recent Paste session: