Real Estate have spent the last decade making their name with jaunty sun-kissed indie-rock fit to soundtrack suburban life. Their music has always sounded remarkably uncomplicated despite knotty layers of guitars and harmonies, a trick afforded to them by generous doses of reverb. Until now the New Jersey group have largely moped around in safe parameters, and fans have been quite happy to cruise along with them.
‘The Main Thing’, Real Estate’s first album in three years, is their most probing work to date. It contains some of their finest ever songs thanks to a much-needed shake-up in the formula. Following various line-up changes (including the departure of longtime guitarist Matt Mondanile in 2016) the quintet have experimented in different roles and, for the first time, collaborated with outside musicians. Vocalist and guitarist Martin Courtney’s charming lyrics about life’s mundanities remain but now – as a father of two – he’s pondering the bigger picture, exploring grief and the future of our planet.
Take ‘Paper Cup’, his existential crisis ditty about being “stuck in a rut” as a full-time musician for the last 10 years. It sounds unlike anything Real Estate have ever done. Syncopated hand drum beats rumble beneath disco strings and soft rock solos as Courtney muses: “You’re trying on new fits / I’m on the same bullshit.” Courtney’s instantly recognisable lilt is lifted at the chorus by Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath’s gorgeous call-and-response vocals.
‘Also A But’ dwells on climate change and, like‘ Paper Cup’, is another creative musical blossoming. Cascading guitars tumble over whirring keys and wah-wah pedal guitars for a proggy ballad that ebbs and flows with Courtney’s solitary walk amongst nature. “Blue green, cross the surface of the hill / Shining metallic glean, another toxic thing of poison blue,” he sings forlornly.
Elsewhere the swelling bass and rolling rhythms of opening track ‘Friday’ seems like Real Estate have been listening to UK trip-hop heroes Zero 7. “If there is a point to this / Something that I must have missed,” Courtney sings, his heavy lyrics at odds with the track’s soothing ambience. He concedes that while he might not have all the answers, he at least has his family (“I’m just glad that you exist”).
Interestingly, the most quintessential Real Estate songs make up the album’s weaker points. ‘November’ offers the kinetic pulse and jangly riffs of the band’s 2009 self-titled debut ‘Days’ but sounds tired, while ‘Falling Down’ swims in the languid downbeats of 2017’s ‘In Mind’. Neither leave a lasting impact.
Standout track ‘Gone’ is by far the most affecting. “You hold the phone / Your hands are shaking / The number’s wrong / But it seems right,” Courtney coos over a sluggish beat dragged by dissonant chords. Whammy guitars wail and a foggy bassline plunges the depths of grief. Its looping hook will gnaw at your brain for days.
Real Estate can certainly be relied upon to deliver breezy, melodic songs but a decade of doing so has rendered a sizeable chunk of their older material indistinct. ‘The Main Thing’ experiments well without alienating die hard fans expecting more of the same. It’s a more mature and ambitious record; the sound of a band finally out of a rut.
Release date: February 28
Record label: Domino