The common theme running through all of Matt Mondanile’s work – both with Real Estate and his solo side-project, Ducktails – is a sense of everything being less complicated than it actually is. It was prevalent on both of his releases under the latter moniker last year; you could easily allow the dreamy soundscapes of “Honey Tiger Eyes” to pass you by on the Wish Hotel EP, before you realised quite how sumptuously he’d married the synths with spaced-out vocals, and The Flower Lane played a similar trick with its lackadaisical guitars.
It’s not a criticism, of course – it’s just that to write off Real Estate as a band who write compositionally simple songs would be unfair when, in fact, they often display such a mastery of intricate, intelligent guitar lines. On their last full-length, Days, they channeled this technical ability into genuine feeling, lending an ostensibly laidback record some palpable emotional resonance. By way of comparison, the track that opens Atlas, “Had to Hear”, is disarmingly direct; there’s feeling, alright, but not the kind I expected; I didn’t really have aching sadness pegged as being one of the band’s go-to thematic settings.
Martin Courtney spins a wistful tale through his most forceful vocal turn to date, with a typically relaxed riff providing a nice counterpoint to his impassioned delivery. This more forthright approach to their lyrics is one of two major strides Real Estate make on this record; there’s hints at frustration on “Talking Backwards” that belie the track’s mellow feel, and Courtney accurately relays failed-relationship hurt on the downbeat “How Might I Live”. Intentionally or otherwise, you get the feeling that the band are moving away from the more abstract subject matter of Days and their debut; “Past Lives”, which tells a story of regret evoked by a visit to an old neighbourhood, seems so much more pinpoint than, say, talk of wasted miles and aimless drives on “Green Aisles”.
The other real development on Atlas is just how immaculately clear everything sounds; this is a gorgeously produced record. They were never really all that lo-fi in the past, but even on Days, there were touches of buzz and reverb around the guitars, and the percussion sounded a little shallow in places, too; not so on Atlas, which is warm and inviting without exception. There’s little instrumental flourishes that augment this – cleverly-placed acoustic guitars on “Had to Hear” and “Primitive”, for instance – but it’s primarily just a case of how cleanly the guitars chime, and that the band have apparently realised the value in keeping Courtney’s beautifully honeyed vocals above the mix, rather than amongst it.
Not all of their decision-making is quite so clever, though; it’s not that there’s anything especially wrong with “April’s Song”, a quaint instrumental that’s scored through with interlocking, washed-out guitars, but its placement immediately after a stirring opening hat-trick is bizarre, killing much of the early momentum. Others might find fault with the sheer uniformity of the production, too; Atlas can definitely sound a little one-track in places, even where there’s changes in pace – as evidenced by the closing couplet of the bouncy “Horizon” and yearning “Navigator”.
I’m not sure that this is quite as summery an effort as Real Estate and Days were; it’s a record better suited to quiet, late-night reflection than hazy days in the sun. That shows us, though, that Real Estate are no charlatans – they can pull off both light and shade with real flair. There’ll be plenty of albums this year that grab you by the throat more vigorously than Atlas does, but very few of them will be quite as lovingly nuanced – and none will make the guitar sound anything like as appealing.