I have a liner notes theory about albums I've carried with me for some time now. In my mind the "lyrical quality" of an album can be predicted by whether or not song lyrics are printed in the liners. While it doesn't help guide your decision to purchase an album, it lets you know how much the artist in question values lyrics. A rapper like Earl Sweatshirt bothers to print his knotty lyrics. The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle goes to great lengths in crafting his character studies and puts those stories front and center. In the height of his 60s fame, Bob Dylan would assure the poetic words he wrote would ring out of the liner notes. None of them are necessarily the greatest of their respective fields because their words are so much better, but because they care so deeply about them.
In hearing Real Estate's third LP Atlas I can't help but wonder how they didn't get around to printing the lyrics. Never mind it would be a tremendous boon to listeners who aren't able to move past the sheets of reverb, Atlas is above all a lyrical album. That sounds like a strange statement to be made about a band that's primarily been lumped into fields of "surf-rock" or "indie-pop" but it's absolutely true. Forgoing the positive pool-lounging vibes of their first two records, the New Jersey quintet has given us an album shading more negative.
Everything is presented in 1080p HD quality on an LCD TV but now there's a subtle smudge on the screen. Contractions are Atlas' primary currency. Lazily spinning around in "Past Lives"'s centrifuge Martin Courtney worries "I can't see the sky." Opening number "Had to Hear" throws Courtney out the door and he knows "I can't go back." The loping drum beats and guitar strums of "Crime" leave plenty of room to realize whatever has been going on has been "pretend" and the concern "I don't wanna die lonely and uptight" is well-founded no matter what age you are. Even the saccharine sentiment of "I'm glad I'm with you" marking the distanced "Primitive" is prefaced by a direly uncertain declaration, "I don't know where I wanna be." These aren't dense lines to parse for weeks on end, they're more like koans. When struggle comes their importance is revealed.
And the notion of something succinct like a koan is an ideal frame of reference for the music captured on Atlas. Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile's guitars gently ebb and flow; never feeling forced. Notes in suburban country shuffler "The Bend" perform the titular action without ever snapping. A last second turn to sky-searching guitar rock doesn't break kayfabe; it's earned after 4 minutes of languishing on the ground; wishing to be amongst stars. Closer "Navigator" is another one of those blissful shufflers where the Alex Bleeker/Jackson Pollis rhythm section is content to trot along. The repeated line "I'll meet you where the pavement ends," embodies their style throughout much of Atlas.
Nowhere does the group find better meeting places than in twin-highlights "Talking Backwards" and "How I Might Live". "Talking Backwards" is my early frontrunner for the year's best. Emboldened by a tenderly chugging bass, Courtney is able to untie his tongue long enough to admit "the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can't seem to do." It's a song of quiet obsession, where plans are made well in advance and talking is done for hours on end. Stripped of the band's earlier jangle there's nothing obsessive to find on the surface, just shimmering romantic pop. Cascading cymbal washes and almost silent organ swathes immediately posit "How Might I Live" as the antithesis. We've arrived at the bitter end, when the mute button needs to be switched off and "goodbye" must be said. That moment is never found though; instead the decision is made to just keep "rolling on."
"Rolling on" is the group's modus operandi for Atlas. "April's Song"'s hazy wobble doesn't send the band off-course at all. A mush-mouth on the aforementioned "Talking Backwards" doesn't stymie true romance. Not even landscapes sprawling across rambler "Horizon" can keep Real Estate distracted for long. In stripping past obfuscations, they've reached a greater clarity. Real Estate doesn’t need reverb to communicate; now they can speak for themselves.
"How Might I Live"