waves of nostalgia permeate throughout our culture. from fashion trends to tumblr blogs to films, there always seems to be a collective clawing at something from the past that is ultimately unattainable. maybe that’s why we emulate it. it’s certainly spilled over into music, with revival movements paying homage to post-punk, shoegaze, and emo – among others – in just the past fifteen years alone. but for every band that follows directly in the footsteps of its members’ childhood heroes, there’s another that evokes nostalgia in a more holistic sense. real estate may be indebted to the surf rock of yesteryear, but it would be hard to convince me that those chiming guitar lines are the sole defining factor of their musical style; rather, they’re tools that have built the sunny, easy-going disposition that real estate rests its laurels on.
that’s not to say that this doesn’t become tiresome, or even problematic. within the context of their own discography and personal growth, atlas is undoubtedly the band’s richest effort to date. the textures are clear and supple, easily able to add or subtract depending on the presence of martin courtney’s voice, and lead guitar lines like the one on “primitive” reaffirm real estate’s capability of writing breezy melodies. the notable difference throughout atlas is the decided mood shift; courtney’s plaintive vocal delivery is finally consistent with its content, starting with the themes of hesitancy and loneliness in album-opener “had to hear.” but, just like 2011’s days, the band’s latest effort plateaus early on, leaving almost nothing left to the imagination. melancholy is firmly established, melancholy stays; mid-tempo guitar melodies are established, mid-tempo guitar melodies stay. atlas is a completely comfortable record, one that i might be able to put on during a particularly hazy day this summer and thoroughly appreciate, but truly great music should not be this circumstantial.
there’s not a doubt in my mind that the members of real estate are all very talented musicians, or that courtney is a convincing lyricist. in fact, album closer “navigator” is a melancholy slice of brilliance, a song that breaks away from the rest of the pack and may point to the band’s true capabilities. but while it’s their consistency of sound that is appealing, it’s the inconsistency of their willingness to deviate from a proven formula that tends to make atlas feel underwhelming at points. it may be tempting to cite the lamentations of mortality on “crime” or the ones of personal insufficiency that permeate “talking backwards” as substantial growth, but i see it more as an old dog actually being able to learn a new trick. ultimately, the nostalgia in real estate’s sound is as present as ever, even if the lyrics have taken a darker turn. for now, they seem a bit too comfortable with their slightly stagnant trajectory.