Real Estate - Atlas (Domino - 2014)
It might seem the age of the great American guitar band is over, the kings are long dead in aeroplanes over a sea somewhere. Indie rocks most vivacious acts, most successful acts, have all abandoned the six strings they used to so heavily rely on. Vampire Weekend never cared, preferring high brow piano’s and collage influenced - superiority complex friendly instruments, Arcade Fire recently wrapped themselves in Hatain Vodoo and DFA club nodding hypnotics, Deerhunter love guitars, but were never really concerned with tradition. Was there ever going to be a band that did it the way it used to be done but make a record on that same scale without some sort of grasp at “nostalgia”, without Pitchfork saying they sound like “Pavement”, without someone wearing a Swans shirt at the bar saying “these guys would be bigger than Galaxie 500 if this record came out in 1993!”? (I admit I’ve been that guy).
Even in the world of purist indie rock there are seemingly always transgressions, Wild Nothing’s astounding debut Gemini and it’s almost as good follow up were too deliberately retroactive, DIIV were too entrenched in (very) seriously trying to make something out of nothing. Real Estate’s 2011 record however might be the only true recent example of a truly a perfect, magnificent guitar record that relied on nothing but guitars. In a way it was similar to Deafheaven’s radical first to second record transformation, you could hear their potential and what they wanted to sound like on their first, their second effort Days hit the nail on the head in a way that just felt oh so satisfying as if they were finally able to spit out what they wanted to say all along. In saying that Real Estate are a band that are not concerned with how they make their music, but instead interested in focusing their execution of standard practise to unreachable heights. They are not technically special but they are melodic geniuses and that’s the catch, they are a band that wants to be the best they can possibly be and a band that searches for new possibilities in an area that most consider tapped dry. Days already succeeded in completing all of these tasks. It is the great American guitar record of our time. Atlas, Real Estate’s third full length record, whilst doing nothing new at all is debatably better again by a considerable margin.
Days sounded effortless. Atlas is effortless, a victory lap for a group already operating on a very high level. For a band that writes songs called “Easy” and jest that if it takes a whole summer to write a song you’re doing it wrong they certainly live by their motos. Atlas more than ever floats along in a haze of beauty and impossible guitar interplay, Courtney’s vocals the clearest and most honey dripped they have ever been gliding in and out of them. The whole thing feels like it just got up at 11.30am but for all it’s lazy overtones Atlas floats in a realm of ambition that is consciously or unconsciously set higher than any other band doing this right now. This type of music has the potential to turn from pleasant to nothingness really quickly, take a lot of Beach Fossils stuff and you’ll enjoy it but try and focus on it for more than ten minutes and you’ll struggle. The delicately propulsive two throttle guitar work here keeps you mentally and emotionally involved for the entire length of the record just like it did on Days. I’m a mediocre guitarist but I can play that whole record very well, from to back, I’m sure I can achieve the same thing with Atlas and I look forward to discovering the nuts and bolts of these complex sounding compositions and being surprised as to how little there is to them. One thing I love about this band is that I’ve never needed to look up a tab to play a Real Estate song but I could never in my wildest dreams come close to writing one, I’m always struck by how economically they use their notes as if each is deployed with the upmost care.
Take first single “Talking Backwards” and look at it for what it is, two rather simple guitar lines clashing against each other in some sort of sunset embrace. Days was significantly crisper than their first records low fi origins but Atlas goes a step further. One listen to “Talking Backwards” and you’ll notice the perfection of every single element, it’s a crystalline manifestation of every single thing that Real Estate do. There is not a single hair out of place, nothing could possibly be better, for the first time they sound properly expensive and it suits them very well. Real Estate have never been a lyrics band and their stories of beachside treks, lakes and suburban dogs were always perfectly suited to fade into the background of their melodic stews, but here you feel like you should listen - at least tentatively. “Talking Backwards” is about not being able to talk coherently to a beautiful girl, yet for some reason things still somehow working out, it’s cheesy rather than stimulating but the song actually sounds exactly how this feels. Real Estate might not be writing lyrics like Dan Bajaar, but they don’t need to. They use them to paint the picture of the feeling they are creating in their music with 110% accuracy.
Atlas is thrilling on first listen because it sounds like a future favourite. These tracks are immediate enough, but they are laced with promise that soon, very soon they are going to mean something more. “Kinder Blueman,” Days instrumental highlight, felt so unremarkable on first spins yet somehow became my most played track of 2011, “April’s Song”, the stunning instrumental centrepiece of Atlas eclipses it tenfold. It occupies the same spot on the record, the fourth, and right after the obvious single. It feels instantly drenched in happiness, sunshine and beer it’s almost unfathomable what this thing is going to mean come curtains 2014. It’s one of the most effortless and powerful demonstrations of everything this band has tried to achieve and it’s startling to even be around it even in its first hours of life. I was pretty overwhelmed with how happy it made me feel. “How Might I live” is the oddity here, the only track that actually feels like it has a peer in the southern American drenched tracks that occupy the Walkman’s perfect swan song Heaven from a couple of years back. Elsewhere, Real Estate are peerless even when they’re making an obvious statement that there are actually other indie rock bands in the world in 2014. Sometimes listening to Atlas you do need a reminder.
Case in point; I’m pretty sure Martin’s familiar with DIIV’s "Past Lives" (Possibly Zach’s best song) but here we get a Real Estate one as well. It’s a monotone drifter with one key guitar line that makes it impossibly larger than life if even for only brief moments - not unlike “Green Isles” and yep, just like “April’s Song” it occupies the same spot on the record. It also harps back to their debut in its depictions of suburbia, empty american swimming pools and lost memories, like on “Suburban Dogs” or “Black lake“‘s surreal summertime trip of coca cola cans and getting to see that girl you like wearing not much at all. Atlas is very much a mirror image of Days in it’s construction, layout and delivery, but it feels more fully realised without any sort of pretension. This could ironically be the cause of some of it’s only minor flaws. The two closing tracks are among the best Real Estate have ever recorded but I feel they could be even better, “Horizon” is a celebratory love song that achieves a lot of what recent James Mercer has been trying to do and failing with his inflated stadium sized ambitions, this song feels like it was written with the intention of only ever being heard by the girl it was written about. Similarly the record’s jaw dropping highlight and closing track “Navigator” starts with sonics that scream “I’m a Real Estate song!” Martin Courtney almost letting go a smile when the chorus slips down a peg into a pure sonic velvet bliss, the lines he sings are aimless - just vague directions, “cross kitchen floor / past the monument.” It’s really beautiful. However both these tracks BEG for the treatment that Days closer and Real Estate’s lone epic “All The Same” was treated to - they could easily be drawn out around the eight minute mark to let those plainspoken golden guitar melodies play out by themselves. “Navigator” is a journey and it makes you want to go on one that lasts longer than 3.36. It’s a minor gripe, I’ve already started an edit in Ableton. Listen to Days straight after Atlas and 2011’s laziest record sounds almost desperate, which is saying a lot. This time they don’t really go for it at any stage like they did with tracks like “Younger than Yesterday.” It’s like the only thing they deliberately let you know they actually tried harder with this time was the production, and production like this can just not be faked or hidden, it’s basically yelling at you because everything else is talking in a soothing reassuring voice.
The point is that Real Estate have made a masterpiece without at any stage resorting to taking anything that resembles a traditional road to getting there. There is no genre breakdown, nothing radical, nothing retroactive. It’s plain jane as they come, which is why it’s so special. Atlas makes the case that you can take a billion beautiful girls out to dinner but it will never replace the simplicity and purity of a meaningful relationship with one. Real Estate are not about party tricks or novelty moves or grandeur, or expensive tastes, they are a highly monogamous band and its worked well for them. Their first record was an exciting first date with a few awkward moments, that EP was the sketchy second date where you think maybe it’s not gonna work out, Their second LP was a third date that went amazingly and ended with the best sex of your life, their fourth is the promise of domestic bliss and the realisation that you wanna spend your whole life doing this exact same thing. It would be unrealistic to think that the odds of time and space would allow any other band or even Real Estate themselves to make a better indie rock record anytime soon, but it seems that space and time can go fuck itself. Atlas, is a pleasant and welcome surprise, but at the same time it’s one that we deserved for a long time. We’ve been very patient.