Nine years into a career as indie rock’s preeminent guitar-pop band, Real Estate has never made a bad album. In fact, they’ve been so reliably and thoroughly exceptional that it has been easy to overlook that they’ve been more or less writing and rewriting the same song over and over, albeit masterfully. But even the most reliable bands start to go a bit stale without a little bit of reinvention. Their most obvious reference points (Yo La Tengo, the Beach Boys, the Kinks) had already reimagined themselves several times over by a comparable point in their creative lifespans, and at album number four Real Estate arrive at a crossroads of sorts. Can they find yet another way to write the same song and make old things sound new?
The answer is…sort of. Picking up where 2014’s Atlas left off, In Mind is a mostly melancholy affair. Vocalist and songwriter Martin Courtney still crafts gorgeously unspooling melodies while sounding like he needs a hug, his songs cycling through images of long, boring days and lonely, sleepless nights. The title proves suitable, as these songs are from the perspective of someone who can’t get out of his own head, tortured by wanting to be anywhere but where he currently is. That restless tone is there from the first humming synths and cascading guitar lines that open “Darling,” a sweetly ruminative ballad where Courtney sits, watching the sun rise and listening to the birds sing while he waits. The mood continues through “Serve the Song” and “After the Moon” – wistful ballads that, a few clever melodic turns notwithstanding, only deepen the despondency.
Courtney is becoming increasingly elemental in his lyric writing, with references to the sun turning up in over a third of the songs and water (rivers, streams, brooks, rain) appearing in many of the rest. The resulting image is one of man staring out into nature from his suburban backyard, taking no comfort from any of it. Here the sun “cuts like a knife” and water is a current that offers to sweep you away if you’d just stop fighting it. (Sample lyric from cathartic album closer “Saturday”: “The line you’re hanging on is fraying/you may as well loosen your grip.”) The melodies are as beautifully rendered as ever, but this time there is joylessness in the arrangements, many which sink into a mid-tempo malaise that lingers a bit too long. Sometimes Courtney sounds as bored as he says he is in these songs.
One exception to all of this despondency is “Diamond Eyes,” the album’s clearest outlier and arguably the least characteristic track in their catalog. Essentially a protest rally anthem, it’s simple and straightforward and about 50 years too late; the sort of song anyone with the knowledge of four of five guitar chords could probably strum out with minimal effort. “It’s a time to be humble/it’s a time to be free,” Courtney intones softly over humming synths. “It’s a time to raise our voices loud and not go quietly.” It’s a nice sentiment and one that will strike a sympathetic chord in the Trump era, but it’s a poor fit for the band, in general, and this album, specifically. But some of their experiments work better than others.
With founding member and lead guitarist Matt Mondanile having left to focus on his Ducktails project, the band is well-positioned to tweak the formula. New guitarist Julian Lynch, a formidable experimental songwriter in his own right, is a perfect fit for that end. His presence is immediately felt as he drapes nimble, lyrical guitar lines over every verse and instrumental interlude. Just listen to his galloping leads on the Byrds-y “White Light,” or the tastefully chiming figures on the harpsichord-driven “Stained Glass Sky,” a soaring slice of Left Banke-ish baroque pop that ranks among the very best songs the band has ever recorded. Best of all is the wistful “Same Sun,” with autumnal guitar leads and lush multipart harmonies providing the backdrop for Courtney’s longing for his youth, when “every day felt like a hyphen.”
Lynch’s precise playing ends up being a good fit for producer Cole M.G.N. (Beck, Julia Holter), who has done a nice job brightening the band’s textural palette and adding some electronic percussion to pull their sound into the 21st century. But Real Estate still functions best when looking to the past. “Two Arrows,” which Courtney has described as the band’s attempt at a “She’s So Heavy” guitar rocker, winds through three minutes of soft psychedelia before launching into nearly four more minutes of increasingly rowdy guitar leads that tangle in hypnotic knots before the song abruptly cuts out. It’s one of the few moments on the album where everyone actually sounds like they’re enjoying themselves.
If Real Estate started their first decade as the thinking person’s party band, they’re closing it as comfort food for an existential crisis. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Elliott Smith, a songwriter whose legacy seems to echo all through this album, never needed to search for a silver lining. And just like Smith reinvented himself song-by-song instead of in broad strokes, Courtney is retaining his core aesthetic while pushing ever-so-carefully in new directions. In Mind, then, is an album caught in a moment of transition, perched halfway between reinvention and diminishing returns. Album number five will prove which side holds sway.