Growing up in the suburbs has given me plenty of opportunities to drive around. When staying at home starts to wear thin, and I realize there are only a few crumpled singles in my wallet that seemed much fatter yesterday, I’ll hop in the car, usually with a friend or two, and cruise along without any particular destination.
I don’t do it for the novelty. On the contrary, some days I feel like I could weave my way through every tiny cross street in my town blindfolded. And I don’t see it as a way of getting to a destination. When I really think about it, the goal of these drives for me is to create some kind of significance — artificial or not — from whatever I see whizzing by through the dirty glass.
This is easier said than done. Wherever I am, I see the rows of wooden faces flanking the road, each one with just some slight difference setting it apart from its neighbor. The clumps of faded green leaves brushing them from all sides. The winding ribbons of pavement spider-webbed with cracks. In these terms, suburbia can be seen as the midpoint between two extremes. Possessing neither an urban excess of noise and diversity nor the countryside’s hushed, rolling beauty, the suburbs can only claim a tame sense of sameness. A place worth living, sure, but probably not a place worth exploring or imbuing with any all-important Significance.
One day about three years ago, I discovered a band that begs to differ. Real Estate, the indie rock quintet from Ridgewood, New Jersey, make music tailor-made to accompany the image of an otherwise unremarkable suburban sprawl — the missing auditory component of a multi-sensory experience. Ever since I first listened to the band, I’ve always had an ideal soundtrack to the kind of drives I’ve always loved. Although they mine several notable influences, especially indie rock titans and fellow New Jersey natives Yo La Tengo, they’ve managed to forge a sound all their own. Unlike Yo La Tengo, who churned out delicate guitar ballads, discordant noise jams, and left-field sonic experiments in equal measure, Real Estate prefers to keep things acoustic, mellow and streamlined. Frontman Martin Courtney’s voice almost never deviates from a pleasant croon, while guitarist Matt Mondanile and bassist Alex Bleeker work together to create a ringing patchwork of notes that reveals new touches with every listen despite its musical simplicity. The drumming’s subtle texture and an occasional wash of keyboards bring it all together. Remarkably, every Real Estate song manages to do something special with these basic elements. Just like the rows of suburban houses I always drive past, the band’s body of work is really just a collection of variations on a common theme — each one more nuanced than it might first seem.
The band’s 2009 self-titled debut album established them as a promising new voice in indie rock. While Real Estate is an excellent record, I don’t think their sound truly came into its own until 2011’s Days. The album is a collection of ten wistful tunes steeped in the moods and imagery of a carefree suburban summer, complete with a cover showing a row of houses. Lyrically, it strikes an ideal balance between lines as overt as “All those wasted miles/All those aimless drives through green aisles” with more symbolic images like “I was just floating on an inner tube in the sun” to dazzling effect. Although a few songs slip into minor-key melancholy, the overarching mood is one of nostalgia for a suburban landscape painted in an idyllic light.
But there are two sides to every story. Atlas, the band’s new album from about a month ago, takes a darker turn. For the first time in their career, Real Estate have made an album fit to soundtrack a contemplative night drive as much as a sunny afternoon cruise. Aside from a stunning upgrade in fidelity, the band’s signature guitar chime is still there. In terms of emotional and lyrical depth, however, Atlas is a bold step forward. The lyrics deal less with rose-tinted remembrances of the past and more with the stark realities everyone has to grapple with in the face of looming adulthood.
It’s not exactly novel subject matter, and a whole album about it could easily grow plodding or clichéd in the hands of a lesser band. But Courtney and company order the track list masterfully — each song stands out from the one before and after. My favorite at the moment, “The Bend”, comes at about the halfway mark. It’s the album’s most somber track, but also its most beautiful. The first thing we hear is some downbeat guitar strumming layered over the sound of crickets chirping, which eventually fades into the background to complement the rhythm section. After a few seconds, an aching second guitar line comes in to complete that unmistakable Real Estate sound. Throughout the song, Courtney confesses his fears and musings about the overwhelming nature of growing up. The line “I’m just trying to make some sense of this/Before I lose another year” succinctly sums up Atlas as a whole, and stood out to me more than any other lyric on my first listen. With about a minute to go, the song slows down and breaks into a heart-wrenching series of notes that sounds like the boiling point for all of Courtney’s troubled thoughts from the previous four minutes. It’s a cathartic ending for a powerful track, and it gives the album a jolt of energy going into the second side.
Atlas is a rich and rewarding record — certainly one of the year’s best so far. Not only is it a logical next step for the band after Days, but it also mirrors my own changing circumstances. After almost a full year of college has gone by, my mind is in a very different place than it was three years ago. The future seems a lot closer than it did in high school, and it’s not as easy to take refuge in a blissful idealization of past and present suburbia. Atlas is right there with me. It acknowledges that change is coming fast, and that the transitions in store will not be easy. At the same time, it doesn’t sacrifice the shimmering sonics or vivid imagery of Days — both of which call to mind the suburbs’ simple pleasures. Now, whether I’m driving around town in the crisp morning or the dead of night, Real Estate has created an equally perfect accompaniment for the ride.