[3 March 2014]
Boy, Real Estate sure has done it again. Without a doubt, this is another Real Estate album. Atlas has all the hallmarks: clean guitars, open chords, the faintest whiff of melancholy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t begin to approach anything resembling an interesting idea.
At its best, the album effectively taps into the mixture of jangly melody and malaise that powered previous record Days, a dreaminess that never quite lets the listener down, even if it never surprises you either. First single “Talking Backward” plumbs these deep wells of feeling, riding an electric-acoustic arpeggio and guitars shot with slap-back reverb for a mildly rocking good time. This is music to mourn a breakup with, ideally while walking home through a rush hour snowstorm. It is wistful without piling on the emotion too thick, for this is a band that specializes in distance, intentional or no, never quite drawing in its audience, and never begging too strongly for them to come back. Highlight and opener “Had to Hear” offers a slower take on these qualities. For better or worse, it is prime Real Estate.
Certainly for worse are the diminishing returns offered on that same formula throughout Atlas. “The Bend” presses the band’s laid-back vibe into dangerously yacht-rock territory, sounding like nothing so much as Weather Channel background music. “Primitive” and “Past Lives” fare no better, offering melody diluted of all hints of electricity, excitement or unpleasantness, just the soundtrack to a coma. And worse still is “April’s Song”, an instrumental that threatens to have an interesting idea before dragging it along for three-and-a-half minutes without development. It hardly even qualifies as half of a song, and could be more accurately described as the loosest of practice-room jams, something a band goofs off with before settling into actual work. Have our standards fallen so low that an act this clearly lazy can become accepted as true work?
Though the record cleans up some with the drifting “How Might I Live” and a quick hit of sadness from closer “Navigator”, these are but mild highpoints in a waste of still-milder mediocrity. In this sense it hews closely to the band’s self-titled debut, a record I strain now to even remember. Yet, both are not too distant from the triumph of Days. If their constituent parts are near identical, why does the one succeed where the others fail? For a band whose main calling card is its lack of tension, that vital energy driving all rock and roll, this is a tough question to answer. It might just come down to the quality of individual songs and chord progressions, though once again, it is hard to distinguish one from the others. One thing is clear, however: with such of wealth of new music competing for our ears, the gruel-bland stylings of Atlas barely merit a chance listen. In fact, like a jangle-pop case of the plague, it should be avoided at all costs.