The last couple of weeks have been punctuated by walking around my Brooklyn neighborhood watching people, envying dogs, slurping coffee, and listening to Real Estate’s new album, Atlas, which is out this week. It’s been the perfect soundtrack for my state of quiet self-reflection, not that Real Estate’s first two albums weren’t ideal soundtracks for wandering around New York on a sunny day. But instead of looking for a distraction from my thoughts in the form of peppy songs that assert, above little else, sentiments like “It’s Real,” I’ve been searching for music to mirror and illuminate my own mental state. It feels good to face things like adults do, and it’s nice to see that Real Estate have finally done so too.
Intelligence is implied in nearly all of independent rock, but up until Atlas, Real Estate were a band that sang about very little. Their first two albums, 2009’s self-titled debut and 2011’s Days, were solid aesthetic sketches that brought to mind certain locations — beaches and parks and other beacons of summertime — more than concrete ideas. But it was the type of music they played — which referenced, in equal measure, ‘90s indie rock and jangle pop, i.e. the 1980s’ interpretation of ‘60s pop — that felt informed, full of artistic clues as to who these guys might be.
Here on Atlas, their lyrics deal with more serious matters. “I cannot come back to this neighborhood without feeling my old age,” singer Martin Courtney opens on “Past Lives,” the most obviously “grown-up” anthem on Atlas. It’s also probably the single-most relatable song Real Estate have ever released, honing in a side effect of having enough fortitude to leave home.
But it’s not done in a nostalgic light, which keeps in line with this album’s overall lack of longing. This is generally content music, with ebbs and flows that represent a life that has hiccups and questions — as existence always will — but not massive cracks in the foundation. The other side of 25 is best summed up by “just trying to make sense of this before I lose another year,” as Courtney sings on “The Bend,” which likens living to being a car with a frozen steering wheel. There’s just a lot here for the self-aware and settled among us youngish adults.
Still, despite the more personal lyrics, the band themselves remain vague and elusive. “People are going to say it forever, but we’re not trying to make the soundtrack to your summer,” bassist Alex Bleeker recently told SPIN. “Our brand is that we have no brand. We’re literally just, like, the dudes you know from down the street in high school who would play in a band together.”
I’m not sure it’s possible for successful artists in these times to have no narrative whatsoever; marking yourself in such a way becomes the story, like Seinfeld did in declaring that it was “a show about nothing.” By calling yourself nothing, you’re daring to say that your art reflects the mundaneness of life, presumably your own.
That can work to an artist’s advantage, as it did with Seinfeld and as it does here with Real Estate. By channeling less of a beach vibe than on past records, the band is able to separate itself from that particular scene, and instead tap into something more universal. There’s a feeling of the North Brooklyn Everyman here, an aging hipster if you must categorize it as such. But because the word hipster has lost every ounce of defining characteristic about it, even that description has lost its currency.
I found myself struggling for words when trying to explain Real Estate to a guy in a bar last week, and I think that’s actually saying a lot about the music itself. I told him to just listen to it, whereas three years ago I probably would have used some stupid genre term that would have turned him off. To discuss music like this is to have a specific conversation about how it reflects your own experiences, and I’m old enough to know that tidily summing up yourself is among life’s most futile acts. And really, isn’t that what Real Estate’s doing by refusing to brand themselves?