New Jersey has a rich history of accomplished storytellers. A typical Bruce Springsteen lyric sheet could cover the height of the floor to the ceiling in your parents’ childhood bedrooms. More recently, bands such as the Front Bottoms have made names for themselves by loading their songs with hyper-personal suburban angst, while Titus Andronicus have packed enough historical and literary references into their albums to put a smile on any mosh pit-frequenting English major’s face. There are many ways to tell a story though, and sometimes you don’t need to take your listeners on an emotional hot pursuit down the Garden State Parkway to create something compelling. Enter Real Estate, who continue to prove that reflective cruise control along the backroads of your old hometown can be just as rewarding.
Initially, Atlas also proves this band is bent on retaining their spot on the indie-rock throne with a certain, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance. Their past two full-lengths excelled at conjuring images of sweltering dog-day afternoons spent with friends drawn down by vibrant sunsets over green lawns. And even though here they revisit many of these images for a third time, they come from a slightly different perspective. The guys are no longer insiders of this hazy suburban paradise. This time they’re returning home, reflecting on the comfortability they once felt, and hesitantly preparing to leave again. Past Lives perfectly embodies this bittersweet homecoming.
Fortunately, they don’t face this journey alone. Unfortunately, it’s the people who stand next to them who are at the risk of being hurt. Talking Backwards and Had To Hear both address the tensions that arise from communicating in a long-distance relationship. The guilt that stems from these misarticulated ideas and a constant desire to hear a real voice on the other end of the phone creeps up on Crime, where crippling anxiety begins to take its toll on our narrator’s sleep.
On the plus side, that track, along with April’s Song, are where the group really gets to show off the chops they’ve been honing these past few years. Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney command the dynamics of Crime by letting chords and lead-guitar melodies converse over the appropriately simple (but not simplistic) rhythm section. April’s Song carries on the Real Estate tradition of including an instrumental cut on each album, but this time adding in some sparse but bright strings to underscore the guitar interplay.
While these are all elements that Real Estate have incorporated effectively into most of their songwriting, Atlas is not without its weak points. The southern-tinged ballad How Might I Live is charming, but seems to break the momentum built up by Crimes. Horizon breaks free of the established groove of the record, and while this change of pace shows a commendable effort to pepper in some diversity, the song never quite takes off.
Closing track Navigator is the strongest non-single track on the album. It’s here that we’re given our final, sunset-laden stroll through suburbia. “The day is young, but I’m already spent,” sings an aging Courtney before we are taken across kitchen floors, out back doors and over to the threshold where the pavement ends with only a slowly extending shadow by our side. Somewhere between the passing of youth and apparent suspension of time in this scene, Courtney defeatedly admits, “I stare at the hands on the clock/I’m still waiting for them to stop.” It may be a cliché sentiment, but in the context of the album it’s a perfectly haunting goodbye wave from the driveway.
Real Estate teased Atlas by releasing audio and video snippets of Talking Backwards one by one until they were melded into one cohesive video. Atlas ultimately demonstrates how such fragments of the memories of both the glory days and the hard times can be arranged to create an open-ended narrative roadmap (dare we say, atlas?) to tomorrow. These songs are Polaroid snapshots of friends, families, lovers, cul-de-sacs and empty highways. Some are perfectly, sentimentally fuzzy, and some don’t quite make it into the scrapbook. But they are all connected by a familiarity that is comforting at first, but painful when you realize that those moments have passed by with the hands of the clock.