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.