Atlas cover

It snowed yet again yesterday in Ohio, so I spent the entire day inside with my wife taking it easy and enjoying each other’s company. We laid around in bed for a while, fixed up a late breakfast, worked ahead on some projects, watched a few episodes of Gilmore Girls on DVD, spent some time reading, ate some chili for dinner that had been simmering in the crockpot all day, and capped it off with the Oscars. It was exactly the sort of day Tom described last year when reviewing Justin Timberlake’s first installment of The 20/20 Experience: “It sounds like being happy in love, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.” At one point during the day I threw on headphones and immersed myself in Atlas, the album Real Estate is set to release tomorrow, and it captured that sensation of sighing domestic bliss better than any album in recent memory — better, even, than Timberlake or Beyoncé’s vaunted tributes to matrimony last year. Those albums were steeped in marital contentment, but they were also glamorous, metropolitan, and sexy. They evoked images of galas and awards shows and nightclubs and passionate limousine quickies. They weren’t just about being happily married, they were about being rich and famous and impossibly beautiful while happily married. And while Martin Courtney’s doing well for himself these days, the experiences he conjures on Real Estate’s third album are distinctly middle-class. As usual, his head is somewhere in the suburbs.

Real Estate, a Stereogum “Band To Watch” a little over five years ago, has owned this territory for a while. They built their name on dreamy guitar-pop paeans to Ridgewood, the quiet New Jersey enclave where Courtney, guitarist Matt Mondanile, and bassist Alex Bleeker grew up. Atlas evokes many of the same feelings as Real Estate’s previous exercises in idyllic suburban mirage, but Courtney’s perspective and approach have shifted in important ways. Before, he was writing about longing for his carefree childhood existence, but with a degree of ironic separation. Self-aware critique floated right alongside sentimentality in a song like “Suburban Beverage,” with its casually cycling mantra, “Budweiser, Sprite, do you feel alright?” Writing from the vantage point of quarter-life uncertainty, it was natural to retreat into peaceful halcyon memories and just as natural to be a little suspicious of that retreat. But Courtney is married now with a kid on the way, and his band seems poised for a long and fruitful career. For the first time in a while, the future is coming into focus. As such, when Courtney made a concerted effort to steer away from the nostalgic visions of youth that dominated Real Estate and Days, he found plenty of inspiration in the present and the imminent future. The one song that does venture into nostalgia, “Past Lives,” is about coming to terms with getting older. Courtney is still writing suburban fantasies, but now he’s the dad instead of the kid.

Atlas is the sound of settling down. It is a record about embracing your inner homebody, about that moment in life when touring the world with your acclaimed rock band shifts from exciting privilege to ambivalent complication. Opener “Had To Hear” and lead single “Talking Backwards” explicate that tension: In the former, Courtney bemoans the way being on tour erodes intimacy with those back home; in the latter, long distance makes the already complex business of communication even more difficult. But despite the geographical title and the early fixation on homesickness, Atlas mostly unfolds on the homefront, and by the time the album settles into its second side, its predominant mood is satisfaction, with no trace of the wry raised eyebrow that made “Suburban Beverage” seem tongue-in-cheek. “Horizon” is about the wonderment of realizing the partner you’ve been searching for is finally right there beside you. “Crime” marvels at the same reality: “I remember when this all felt like pretend, and I still can’t believe.” The lovestruck chorus of “Primitive” — “Don’t know where I want to be/ But I’m glad you’re here with me” — could pass for Courtney’s idols and fellow New Jersey indie rock mainstays Yo La Tengo, a band that knows a thing or two about conveying domestic bliss. And the album’s closing track, “Navigator,” wrings unimaginable power from gentleness. It’s the most beautiful song Real Estate has ever recorded, a portrait of romantic tranquility reflected on shimmering pools of reverb.

So Atlas is undoubtably a transformational album, but the evolution is not readily apparent on first pass. The most common critique of Real Estate, even among those who love the band, has been a perceived lack of variation. I addressed this concept in my defense of Best Coast last year, which asserted that a statement like “It all sounds the same” usually indicates a shortage of close examination and that appreciating the nuances of a band with a signature sound is like appreciating the subtle variations between fine bourbons. That was true of the first two Real Estate albums, each of which rewarded weeks of close listening by blooming into rich displays of unexpected beauty. Atlas has unfolded in the same way over time; at first, it seemed like nothing more than immensely pleasant background music, but its contours came into focus when I lent them my full attention.

More than any Real Estate album to date, Atlas is a triumph of craftsmanship. They’re mostly working in the same molds as ever — the jaunty major-key ditties, the woozy drifting cloudscapes, the breezy dream sequences — but an expanded lineup and years of practice have rendered Courtney and company absolute pros. And while Atlas contains no song so immediately ingratiating as “Fake Blues” or “It’s Real,” there are moments on this record that this band simply never could have pulled off before, from the tumbling psychedelic rhythms that carry “Horizon” to the languid sunbeam euphoria that’s tacked onto the end of “The Bend.” Real Estate recorded Atlas at the Wilco Loft in Chicago, and a lot of people have noted Real Estate’s budding similarity to Jeff Tweedy’s band in terms of sound and career trajectory — as Tom put it, “it’s possible to see them easing into the same sort of perma-touring, base-satisfying existence that Wilco enjoys.” That’s a fair comparison: The warmly impressionist noodling of Atlas is reminiscent of a less jammy, more compact take on Sky Blue Sky, the album that notoriously got Wilco saddled with the “dad-rock” tag. It is, in other words, the sound of Real Estate growing up without compromising who they are. Some fathers tinker with cars; Martin Courtney tinkers with his carefully honed aesthetic.

Atlas is out 3/4 on Domino.

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Comments (49)
  1. Primitive

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  3. This is the best album that has been released in 2014.

  4. thanks chris. as soon as you compared this album to sky blue sky i ordered it off domino’s web site. im actually listening to the album live on npr’s site and its so good.

  5. addressing the whole “it all sounds the same” thing: I kind of listen to real estate the same way I listen to house/deep house – good use of layers, percussion, relatively standard sounds, a catchy melody…. the uniformity of the genre (or in this case, band) kind of forces you to really notice the little details that can make a good song great. i think i remember seeing the lead singer’s factmag mix and it had a lot of house cuts on it

    • I agree. The first time I listened to Real Estate, I wasn’t blown away because most of time they use the same instruments and sonic qualities, but their vibe is really intoxicating and easy to get lost in.

  6. Real Estate is great stuff! Only listened to this once, but it sounds… well, like I hoped it would, and that’s pretty damn good.

    AOTW will surely be Linda Perhacs’ new album? Eagulls’ self-titled effeort is a lot of fun too, but the former might have more staying power.

  7. Real Estate’s singer looks like a highschool aged John Hodgeman. Also the album’s awesome

  8. this record reminds me of earlier today when i was drinking a glass of water and not listening to music

  9. I think I would really, really love this album if I were a straight white man in his early 30′s who was raising two children in the suburbs with my wife of 7.5 years who I met when we were in college and had ambitions of travelling the world and getting jobs at the State Department but ultimately just ended up working for the county government and an insurance company, respectively, and one afternoon in late May decided to invite some of my old friends over for a cookout sometime over the summer, except our conversations were weirdly stilted and ultimately inconsequential, and afterwards I realized how much everything changed and needed something to wind down to while also cleaning off my grill and doing the dishes.

    But that’s not my life. So maybe I’ll revisit it in a few years.

    • And gas station sunglasses. Oh my GOD how could you get literally every other middle age stereotype into one post and forget gas station sunglasses? You’ll need to try harder next time.

    • As opposed to what…mid 20′s, sorta straight, trying to figure out why you couldn’t master junior year at your state school so you now find yourself driving back and forth to community college in your 2004 BMW that makes you appear to have a relatively nice car when in fact your alternator is one tankful from blowing, You’re in an Ikea funded 800 square foot apartment scrounging in your fridge for whats left of your tub of Whole Foods Guac before your faux buds come over with some schwag weed their uncle grew only to smoke with the towel under the door so your 80 year old apartment neighbor doesn’t smell it. Then its off to the beer-stained club to watch whatever band of the week has shown up on a Monday until someone in your crew inevitably takes in too much Plymouth Gin and yuo realize at 11:30 that you really have to figure out what to do with your life because you’ve come to terms that this isn’t it anymore.

      Man, I miss those days….oh well, now wheres that nice dry aged rib eye and my bottle of Barolo. Its been a long week, time to kiss my son on the forehead and thank him for giving me purpose.

      Let’s grill!

      • Actually, as opposed to completely not straight not white not in his twenties freshman in college going to school on a scholarship. So not quite what you imagined. But nice try!

        (I admit there was some ambiguity in the last line of my comment, but whatever)

    • I’m a straight white married guy in my late 20s. I’m also a person who likes bands like R.E.M. and the Smiths.

      Guess which one has any bearing on why I like Real Estate.

      • R.E.M. and The Smiths were quite possibly the worst possible bands you could’ve cited there seeing as The Smiths has some explicitly homosexual songs to warm my gay soul (“you can pin me and mount me like a butterfly” on the lead track to their debut album?) and Michael Stipe also has some hefty appeal to queer people. Ya feel.

        I get that it was a flawed argument. It wasn’t supposed to be sound. Because. It. Was. A. Joke.

        • I got what you were saying and I got that it was supposed to be funny. It was funny. But it also smacked of the “dad rock” slur that gets thrown around so much. My point was that people’s tastes don’t have to be cultural or identity-political; sometimes they can just be musical. I don’t care if Real Estate’s lyrics are about suburban married life; that’s not why I like them. I like them because I like pretty melodies and jangly guitars.

          Also, I always thought that was one of the most romantic lines ever in a song. I probably identified with it more than a straight male logically should.

          • Okay, I get where you’re coming from, but their music personally doesn’t do it for me and I think it’s partially because they are pretty derivative without having what — for me — makes the other bands like them (including those you named) special. And I’m glad you were able to appreciate my humor even though you disagreed with it.

  10. Your snow day sounds exactly like my snow days. My wife makes chili and we watch old episodes of Gilmore Girls (we own every season). And no, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a man who enjoys Gilmore Girls. It’s one of the best-written shows of the 2000s.

    Also, Atlas is a really enjoyable album. Perfect for early spring.

    • The problem I have with Gilmore Girls is that they talk way too fast for me to keep up.

      Indeed, I’ve found that it’s fairly easy to categorize shows intended for women versus shows intended for men by the rate at which characters speak.

      For example, my girlfriend is currently on that Scandal hype and every time I watch an episode I feel like I’ve been punched in the face. Television then proceeds to get slower and stupider and manlier as you progress across the femininity-masculinity spectrum, until all you’re really left with is 60 minutes of a man sitting at a table, wordlessly staring at you in black-and-white as he sips bourbon and picks up and sets down his .45 revolver, interspersed with commercials that imply, “ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH TO WEAR THIS DEODORANT?”.

  11. The male version of Beach House. Embrace the channeling of the Stone Roses…

  12. Thanks for reminding me in the first paragraph that I’m single.

  13. I like Real Estate and this album is pretty good. Going back to the new Beck album though, a lot of people crapped on it for being too ‘safe’ and for not being adventurous enough, despite the fact that it was a very well written and ridiculously well-recorded and pleasant album on pretty much all fronts. Then Real Estate gets all these accolades where people seem to praise them for playing it safe and doing very little different because what they did before worked. It’s just lame that artists are held to completely different standards based on their histories and that they’re basically a slave to the past in the eyes of their critics. I think the Beck album is substantially better than this one for the record, but they’ll both work.

    • This. This exactly.

      I was texting my friend after he mentioned Real Estate’s BNM and I said, “I’m still trying to figure out how Beck gets a 6.8 but this gets an 8.8″ He said he thought about it too and gave up trying to figure it out.

      Additionally I made the same point at my record store yesterday when I picked up both Beck and Real Estate. I held them both up at the counter and made a point that you could listen to both of these albums back to back without breaking the mood.

      It is pretty whack that Beck’s “Morning Phase” gets discounted because it has similarities to an album he released 12 years ago. Even though he released three albums completely different from “Sea Change” within those 12 years. Yeah it’s weird.

      However, aside from blogs and such, most people I’ve talked to really love the new Beck record so scores be damned. But hell, I got both Beck & Real Estate in the same playlist on my computer nestled in with War on Drugs, Wild Beasts, St. Vincent and Future Islands. Can’t complain. It’s all good to my ears.

      • In the interest of making the Pitchfork scoring process more transparent, I thought I would share this heretofore highly confidential scoring algorithm with you:

        the heretofore highly confidential p4k scoring algorithm:

        1. start with p4k raw score
        2. is artist part of zeitgeist? +1.0 for yes and -1.0 point for no
        3. have they played or will they play p4k music fest? +1.0 point if yes and -1.0 point for no
        4. fourth album or later? -2.0 points unless they’re indie veteran with no hope of breaking through to larger audience
        5. are they part of genre we’ve arbitrarily decided will make a “comeback” this year? +0.5 point for yes and +0.0 point for no
        6. are they part of genre we arbitrarily decided would make a comeback last year? -2.0 point for yes

        So as you can see, we simply decided to toss Beck’s latest LP in the trash with Cut Copy’s fourth LP.

        – Not Eean Cohen

  14. I almost didnt continue reading after Chris said he “watched a couple of Gilmore Girlst episodes.” uggh. Decent write up though. Makes me glad I moved away from the midwest. I like the album and its higher-fi sound. I love the instrumental and the guitar interplay is as good as ever. I am going to see them tonight in Vancouver and really looking forward to it.

  15. face by Lorelai
    body by Rory

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  17. I’m a big fan of Real Estate’s sound, but I was hoping they would be more adventurous with the songwriting and take things in a new direction with this new album. I think they are capable of more. Nevertheless, I can’t really complain- track seven “Primitive” is worth more than most bands entire discography.

    • I agree. It’s a great record and I dig the songs, but when I noticed how closely it’s structure mirrors Days, I was a bit shocked. The lead singles are in the same spot followed by the albums only instrumental and the one track with Bleeker on vocals snuck in a few tracks before the end. I wouldn’t expect or even really want them to break the mold too much, but they could make the parallels a bit less obvious.

  18. they should tour with war on drugs.

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