The feeling of musical deja vu is difficult to shake.
Real Estate has always been dreamlike, but as their career has progressed, that core aesthetic has taken different forms. Their earlier records, while indebted to classic rock in some sense, also owed a bit to the jangly college rock of the ‘80s and ‘90s and wrapped it all in Martin Courtney’s complicated relationship with suburban existence. As the band met with more success and went through a few necessary lineup changes, the classicist side of the band became the dominant mode; the guitars got clearer and the band got more comfortable with just jamming. On their last album, In Mind, this worked against them as they struggled to balance out their clearer melodies with a more stretched-out, organic sound. The Main Thing comes closer to finding that balance, but Courtney seems less interested in creating a tighter or looser record and more keen on subverting ideas of what Real Estate songs can be about.
Because the band has an inherently relaxed vibe, one could easily overlook the moments of tension and melancholy. The easygoing nature oftentimes seemed to be an attempt to will harmony into existence while drifting aimlessly through life. It’s a good mode to work in while you’re in your early 20s, but as one gets older the pressures of life become more apparent. This is the source of the melancholic streak that runs through The Main Thing; instead of using adolescent malaise as a source of inspiration, Courtney turns to more adult anxieties. On single “Paper Cup,” he and Sylvan Esso fret about how much life changes and doesn’t change over time, and “You” reads as Courtney speaking directly to his newborn child (“The days will form after the storm/ Of cognizance subsides/ For now enjoy the innocence”). Here, Courtney charts out a path for Real Estate beyond wandering empty suburbs in a haze formed by pot and cheap beer; for him, the anxieties of adulthood only loom larger as more responsibility enters his life.
But it’s not like this band has magically become Joy Divison. This is still a Real Estate record, and one can guess what it will sound like. The Main Thing succeeds where its predecessor tripped up by relying more on simple arrangements that place melody front and center. While it’s a relief to hear them play real songs rather than meandering jams, their new, streamlined sound still fails to demand attention the way their earlier effects-laden albums did. What’s more, the melancholic tone of Courtney’s lyrics has less and less impact as the album wears on, such is the lock-step consistency of the band’s sound. As time has gone on, that consistency is starting to work against them; one wonders if there are any new avenues for Real Estate to explore on the path they’ve chosen to go down.
This isn’t to dismiss The Main Thing as a crushing disappointment. It is at times beautiful, and the lyrics imply that making this was a piece of deep personal expression for Courtney. Still, the feeling of musical deja vu is difficult to shake, and if none of Real Estate’s albums so far have gripped you, this one is unlikely to change your mind. There’s still plenty to enjoy and even love here, but Real Estate remain less interested in challenging their audience (or finding a different one) than one would like.