real-estate-atlas1[xrr rating=4.25/5]After three full-length albums, the lyric that most succinctly sums up New Jersey band Real Estate’s message can be found on their 2009 debut: “Suburban dogs are in love with their chains.” The group evokes that uniquely suburban phenomenon of having lots of space yet feeling entrapped. The band’s jangly guitars and surf-rock grooves conjure up the terrifying beauty of swimming pools, symmetrical houses and cleanly swept sidewalks. Yet, there has always been a degree of malaise below the surface of Real Estate’s music. On their third effort, Atlas, the lyrical content in particular speaks of dreams and relationships unrealized. Sure, there is plenty of space in the suburbs, but this space results in distance—both physical and emotional—between human beings.

In order for the darkness below the surface to come out clearly, the surface itself has to be impeccably executed. The band recorded much of the LP in Chicago at Wilco’s studio, the Loft, with Tom Schick behind the board. The sonic difference between Atlas and the group’s first two records is palpable. Lead guitarist Matt Mondanile’s lines sparkle with fullness, and leadman Martin Courtney’s vocals have more depth and character than before. Drummer Jackson Pollis and bassist Alex Bleeker interact readily with the guitars, injecting the surfy music with a heavy dose of humanity. Several tracks end with extended, contemplative instrumental sections. Rather than seeming overly “jammy,” these moments serve a distinctive artistic purpose, namely to help the audience feel the suburban space.

The first lyric on the album is “I’m out again on my own,” and this line of loneliness and isolation sets the mood for the entire record. On “Past Lives,” our speaker is visiting his old neighborhood and even this youthful nostalgia is undercut by a sense of melancholy: “And even the lights on this yellow road/ Are the same as when this was our town.” Indeed, some things never change, yet we don’t own this town the way we used to. Our time has passed. Many tunes express a feeling of being out of control and unable to truly be one’s self. “Crime” finds the speaker’s discontent manifested through insomnia (“Toss and turn all night/ Don’t know how to make it right/ Crippling anxiety”), and “The Bend” finds society making the speaker dance like a puppet on a string (“It’s so hard to feel/ They control you/ Like I’m behind the wheel/ But it won’t steer.”

Some solace for this deterministic depression can be found in the comfort of others. But modern relationships are also plagued by misunderstandings and regrets, Real Estate suggests. Lead single “Talking Backwards” is concrete enough to be relatable and abstract enough to be thoughtful in describing communication breakdown (“I might as well be talking backwards/ Am I making any sense to you?/ And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do”). When love and companionship are found, they are often in the least expected places. On “Horizon,” the speaker asserts, “Just over the horizon/ That’s where I’ll always think you’ll be/ It’s always so surprising/ To find you right next to me.”

The downtrodden lyrics aren’t the only element that sets Atlas apart from Real Estate’s also masterful, yet less fully realized, first two discs. The group has expanded their musical vocabulary in subtle yet discernibly pleasurable ways. Alex Bleeker’s bass lines are more melodic and interactive throughout Atlas than on Days or Real Estate. The funky Fender Rhodes sound on “Past Lives” and the jazzy, complex chord progression of “The Bend” are reminiscent of Steely Dan circa Aja. In short, Real Estate has imbued Atlas with a sense of soulfulness, making the tales of entrapment and longing even more tragic.

After several listens, Atlas reveals itself to be a deep, meditative work, one that represents a similar artistic step forward as Vampire Weekend took last year with Modern Vampires of the City. Just as few suspected an East Coast preppy, Paul Simon-appropriating band that sang about campus hookups, Oxford commas and trips to Cape Cod to create a work with an existential concern for mortality and the idea of God, the same might be said for Real Estate. The genre label “surf rock” often implies a certain glistening artificiality. These talented artists from New Jersey have dived below the surface of the swimming pools and ocean waters into the depths of the human condition.

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