Back with their fourth proper LP — their first since 2014’s Atlas — Real Estate, the five-piece hailing from Ridgewood, New Jersey, returns with a sound that simultaneously diverges from and echoes the band’s previous sound. Traditionally known for a distinctly unhurried brand of surf-rock, Real Estate is exporting the same mood they’ve always had, but featuring a more layered sound, more experimental textures. While sonically exploratory, In Mind also seems the work of a band perhaps not entirely aware of its status as being on the cusp of widespread renown, but still pressured by it.
While Real Estate’s first two albums — Real Estate and Days — were largely carefree, Atlas, their third, captured the anxieties and insecurities of lead vocalist and guitarist Martin Courtney in the months preceding fatherhood and, arguably, true adulthood (if such a thing exists). In Mind reflects not the resolution of those same anxieties, but how they have changed over time. There is a pervasive restlessness about the album. Uncertainty is its central virtue, and ‘change’ itself becomes an active character. A narrator impatiently waits for his lover on “Darling,” laments the lack of faith he has in his own ability to be content on “Stained Glass” (“There’s no place I would rather be right now / I’d love never to leave but I just don’t know how”) and muses about what “we’ve left behind” on “Two Arrows.” Later, he challenges the nature of change and constancy on highlight “Same Sun”: “Where does one thing ever end / And the next begin?”
All of this uncertainty reaches its climax on the melancholy resolution of the album, “Saturday” — the song that also most successfully diverges from traditional Real Estate form. The first quarter is entirely dominated by lethargic piano, but ups its pace just in time for Courtney’s vocals. He takes a risk, singing: “I was born on a Saturday / What about you?” (It’s no secret that these sorts of fourth-wall rhetorical questions almost invariably fall flat, cheap attempts at sounding profound.) He gets away with it because of his seeming indifference, which makes itself more plainly apparent in the track’s chorus: “A strong current will sweep you downstream / It would be best not to resist / The line you’re hanging on is fraying / You may as well loosen your grip.” Upon closer examination though, the song is too vague to hold serious weight, but its careful arrangement makes for satisfying repeat listens.
“Saturday” is the final song on the album, but Real Estate make their stylistic intentions clear — that is, that they intend to diverge from expectation — early on, during leading single and album-opener “Darling,” a charming hybrid of old and new. The song features the same sort of jangly, looping guitars that the band has taught us to love, but opens on a synth, and an extra level of production is layered over the usually raw lead guitar. “Darling,” in addition to “Serve The Song,” “Two Arrows” and “Holding Pattern,” hints at a subtle move in the psychedelic direction, but “Diamond Eyes” is thoroughly country in nature à la Kevin Morby.
If suburbia had a voice, Courtney’s would be it. Whatever new direction the band is pursuing, his voice still reigns supreme, a gentle croon over the gliding guitar provided by new member Julian Lynch, who replaced Matt Mondanile in 2016 after he left to pursue his solo project, Ducktails. Regardless of whether the change in guitarist had any bearing on the band’s direction, Real Estate are still uniquely Real Estate, and they demand patience.
This is music made for lazy days in the sun, but not unreflective ones. It’s soft rock, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be challenging. The challenge here is realizing the age-old truth — or cliché — that the only constant in life is change.