No band of this decade is more instantly recognisable than Real Estate. From the first moment that one of Martin Courtney’s twinkling, flickering guitar lines reaches your ears, it’s like they’ve never been away. The New Jersey band arrive now at their fourth studio album, after a three-year break which saw them lose their second guitarist Matt Mondanile, who departed to take his own project Ducktails more seriously. Joining in his absence is Julian Lynch, and despite the twin guitars carrying nearly the entire identity of the band on their shoulders, the switch has not caused a disruption.
Opening track and lead single ‘Darling’ kicks in, and nothing has changed. The first 90 seconds are everything we have come to know – rippling, elegantly interlocking guitars, a finely and meticulously arranged band who sound like they could play forever. When Courtney’s vocals eventually arrive, he sings of impatiently waiting for his lover but does so by describing the birds that rest on the ferns on his porch and the transition from sunlight to moonlight. He is an underrated lyricist, with an expressionistic flair for conjuring a vivid mood by drawing out detail from the most unexpected places. As a showpiece to get the album underway, it rises to the task with ease.
It turns out to be the first of a pretty, bittersweet trilogy of opening songs, along with ‘Serve The Song’ and ‘Stained Glass’, that fully capture the band’s essence. The clarity in their playing is remarkable, like an Ultra HD underwater shot of shoals of shimmering, brightly coloured, exotic fish, all somehow moving as one. Production duties were handled by Cole M.G.N., best known for supplying a similar attention to detail for Beck, Snoop Dogg and Julia Holter, a diverse crowd if ever there was one. But beyond the production, there seems to be a control freak-ery to Real Estate anyway, with every minute detail pored over and every phrase tightly choreographed. The bands they most frequently call to mind – The Byrds, early R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub – were never this closely scripted.
The formula is tampered with somewhat at the conclusion of that opening triplet, however. Two longer, more considered and, frankly, slower songs follow to drop the pace. On ‘After The Moon’, guitars suddenly begin to sound more like harps, as Courtney takes us on a flight of fancy, a daydream that the sensitive kid in the movie might indulge in, where what’s happening in his head is more interesting than the classroom ever could be. But like a daydream, it festers and drifts, diverting at the time but insubstantial and forgettable in hindsight.
The second of the two, the seven-minute track ‘Two Arrows’, takes the languorous diversion further. “I’ll meet you in the morning, beyond that I’ve got no plans,” he sings and you believe him. A fuzz guitar lead eventually comes in, but even that is deliberately placed. These aren’t bad tracks, but they miss the urgency of the band’s best and perhaps demonstrate why the band have a formula in the first place.
The rest of the album falls into place, songs neither outstaying their welcome nor rocking the boat. As with the great majority of American bands at the moment, there comes a time when they feel obliged to address you-know-what: in this case, Alex Bleeker sings, “it’s a time to raise our voices loud and not go quietly” on the track ‘Diamond Eyes’. You sense it takes a lot to make him angry, but here he’s close. “As this time marches on into great uncertainty/I have music all around me bringing harmless melody,” he continues, dealing with the new regime in the most Real Estate fashion imaginable.
There may not be anything as deliriously addictive as ‘Talking Backwards’ or ‘Municipality’ on this album, but a prettier and more lovingly crafted record you won’t hear for a while. It could be that Martin Courtney is capable of producing a countless number of these records, so natural does it feel. If that is the case, the more crucial question might be how long the appetite for them remains. But for the time being, Real Estate can feel free to keep them coming.