“I find it hard to believe just one season is all I’d need,” confesses Martin Courtney on “Horizon,” the penultimate track on Real Estate’s Atlas. It’s a statement that’s as honest and to the point as any of the other melancholic musings made throughout the band’s third album. Embodying a distinctly seasonal tone is something Real Estate has been specializing in since their eponymous 2009 debut, and each effort since then has developed a more personal, confident sound that speaks to the group’s delicate, wholesome approach to songwriting and guitar-centric tunefulness, as well as their antecedent indie-rock influences. If Real Estate captured the essence of summer, and Days maintained an unmistakably autumnal aura, then Atlas, the most thematically mature of the three, could easily be classified as Real Estate’s wintery opus.
Opener “Had to Hear,” with its jangling chord progression and expressive lyrics, is a potent combination of disarming pensiveness (“I had to hear you just to feel near you/I know it’s not true, but it’s been so long”) and straightforward, sumptuous instrumentation. Matt Mondanile’s dexterous guitar work is something to behold, especially on highlights like “Talking Backwards” and “Crime,” the latter of which was released with a generous play-along music video complete with on-screen tablature so mindful admirers can learn to master his elegant ebb and flow. Bassist Alex Bleeker and drummer Jackson Pollis truly shine during a couple of Atlas’s more tender moments: Pollis’s angelic cymbal taps are the balletic heart and backbone of the sentimental childhood story “Past Lives,” while Bleeker tones down his bass and steps into the vocal spotlight on “How Might I Live,” posing perhaps the album’s most poignant set of questions surrounding a troubled romance (“How might I live to betray you? How might I live to see the day? How might I live to say you’re not the one I love?”).
At its core, Atlas is an album about relationships and the passing of time; it frequently speaks to a certain intangible distance that’s always present between loved ones, and how attempting to tightly grip something so fragile can be a soul-crushing task. “When the night is young in the land I’m from, the seasons ghost away,” Courtney sings on “Primitive,” a breezy ballad that paints a nostalgic picture of suburban hideaways eroded by generations of overuse. With Atlas, Real Estate reveals itself as a band that realizes their strengths, but not necessarily their limitations, as they continue to chart new sonic paths on the steadily expanding map of their career. As Courtney coolly prophesies on closing number “Navigator,” “I’ll meet you where the pavement ends.”