Real Estate returns with their third album Atlas in a way that feels much like visiting home after a long, life-altering absence. Going to college, getting married, having kids. Growing up. The New Jersey band, known for a sound that is cheerily nostalgic of the breezy feel of the Beach Boys, comes back with a similar tone, but an entirely different message. It still feels like the music that plays softly in the background of afternoons lying in warm grass, gazing up at blue, cloud-studded skies. On the surface, it’s easy to shrug it off as just that, with guitarist Matt Mondanile’s dreamy guitar riffs and lead singer Martin Courtney’s easygoing vocals.
When you lean in to Atlas, giving it the attention it deserves, you hear a band that has emerged from the carefree daze of summer vacations. The songs evoke the perils of getting older. The uncertainty of the future is no longer an intentional blissful avoidance, but rather, a looming discomfort. In Atlas, Real Estate doesn’t seek to illustrate the feeling of teenage freedom. Instead, the wistful, beachy sound is a vehicle through which the band explores themes of loneliness, distance, and the bitter sweetness of adulthood.
Unlike the two albums that preceded it, 2011’s Days and 2009’s self-titled Real Estate, Atlas was recorded through live studio jam sessions, band members performing full tracks all the way through together. This allows Real Estate to showcase the tightness and precision of their musical ability, but also speaks volumes about their confidence as a band. That confidence is well deserved, demonstrated in simple guitar melodies that strum and swirl around each other in a menagerie of serene, but striking, instrumentals.
The album opens with “Had to Hear,” a song that evokes longing. Mondanile and bassist Alex Bleeker pluck away on their guitars in a telepathic unison, each picking up where the other leaves off. Alongside them, Courtney’s vocals come through like a lonesome message spoken through tin cans: “I had to hear you / Just to feel near you.”
“Talking Backwards,” the album’s first-released single, is a highlight. It’s one of the most cheerful sounding songs on Atlas, but contradicts itself when Courtney’s lyrics imitate a convoluted argument between distanced lovers. The frustration breaks through the confines of the playful melody, as Courtney sings, “I might as well be talking backwards / Am I making any sense to you / And the one thing that really matters / Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.”
“Crime” is the most paradoxical song on the album. Underneath a mellow, upbeat tune, driven by the close-knit, mingling guitars of Courtney and Mondanile, is a crippling, anxiety-riddled love letter. “I don’t wanna die / lonely and uptight / Stay with me.” Courtney sings convincingly, as though it’s his imminent fate.
As Real Estate has developed as a band, they’ve become masterful at making music that strikes a chord of “meaningful minimalism.” Atlas is not a flashy album, because it doesn’t need to be. It requires a thoughtful audience, one that is willing to unpack the album and release the real-life anxieties muddled beneath the pretty, easy-listening sound.
Atlas finishes with “Navigator,” a melodic masterpiece so easy to relate to that it hurts. Still pondering the ticking away of time, still befuddled by the meaning of it all, it concludes with a sense of hopefulness, not despair. “The endless life’s just shining in / And I have no idea where the days went.”