Real Estate 2024
Photo: Sinna Nasseri / Grandstand Media

Real Estate Go Back to Basics on ‘Daniel’

Daniel‘s “brand-new old-fashioned” version of Real Estate is totally workable but is also a reminder that the old-fashioned stuff was better.

Real Estate
23 February 2024

What’s in a font? In these days of digital delivery music, cover art may seem like an afterthought. However, vinyl albums are making a comeback, too. Most likely, more people are seeing record covers in all their full-size glory than at any time in the last 35 years. Fonts matter. In the case of Real Estate‘s Daniel, especially so.

The cover of Daniel features a variation on the cursive script that has adorned most of the Real Estate’s previous five albums. Notably, that font did not appear in Daniel’s immediate predecessor, In Mind (2020), where it was replaced by abstract block lettering. Intentionally or not, these changes are symbolic. In Mind found the Brooklyn-based band continuing to take small but significant steps away from, or beyond, the easy-going, often quite pretty indie jangle-rock they had made their name with. Now, four years (and a considerably lower profile) later, Daniel takes a decisive step back to basics. This is no accident; the band themselves have admitted as much.

Not to give the wrong impression. Real Estate were never a group people listened to because they wanted to be challenged. Rather, they were the band people listened to precisely because they wanted something intelligent that wasn’t challenging at all. The appeal of albums like Days (2011) and Atlas (2014) was in their instantly nostalgic, effortlessly timeless sound. This is no knock on Real Estate, either. The cliché holds true: It usually takes a lot of work and skill to come across as convincingly effortless. The more Real Estate stretched themselves, if only relatively slightly, the more the effort showed.

This backdrop creates an interesting conundrum for Daniel. It is the sound of a band laboring to return to their effortless ways. Such is the irony that comes with longevity.

In another ironic twist, Real Estate’s choice of producer and venue is new. Daniel was helmed by Kacey Musgraves producer Daniel Tashian (whose name, according to the group, may or may not have provided the album with its title) and recorded at the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville. There are more acoustic guitars than usual, and some unobtrusive pedal steel is played by session man Justin Schipper. For the most part, though, Real Estate have not been “Nashville-ized” or “countrified”. They sound exactly like Real Estate, only more so. In that sense, Daniel is a success that surely will send many fans and critics straight into “return to form” / “best album since…” mode.

To be sure, the opening track, “Somebody New”, is quite lovely. Guitars twinkle and jangle all around as gentle swells of melody are swept along by synth strings and Martin Courtney’s measured yet ultra-earnest croon. The song is as catchy as anything Real Estate have recorded. Ambling along like late-vintage Teenage Fanclub, “Water Underground” isn’t far behind. Throughout Daniel, Courtney soothes while Alex Bleeker’s basslines bounce around merrily. Tashain imbues the proceedings with a warm, comfy glow that some would argue the last couple of records could have used more of. All 11 tracks are perfectly consumable.

At some point around the album’s midpoint, they also become almost indistinguishable. The band’s official bio describes the Real Estate sound as one that “[reflects] the spellbinding glow of suburban ennui”. But there is a crucial, fine line between poignant music about boredom and music that’s boring itself. Too often, Daniel crosses that line. The pleasant strumming, the stately vocal melodies, and the general vibeyness start to blur together despite some faster tempos toward the record’s back half. There are some quirky guitar effects and electric organ tones, but only the crisp, Ringo Starr-inspired playing of new drummer Sammi  Niss provides a true sense of dynamics.

The lyrics don’t help much, either. Few artistic approaches court the insufferable like songs about writing songs do, but that is what Real Estate have done here. Whereas in the pastm a track called “Municipality” was about uncertainty and longing, now “Interior” is about just that—being inside a car while Courtney shares this new song he’s been “dying to show you”. There is a lot of reflection on reflection itself. That is not necessarily a negative trait unless it leads to inert couplets like “We sit in furnished rooms / Listening to Harvest Moon.”

In a final bit of irony, the least typical song on Daniel is also a standout. The Bleeker-fronted “Victoria” is the most twangy, country-influenced track and also one of the most memorable. It suggests that Real Estate might have done well to follow like-minded artists like Wilco and Grandaddy and embrace the genre unabashedly. Instead, Daniel’s “brand-new old-fashioned” version of Real Estate is totally workable but is also a reminder that the old-fashioned stuff was better.

RATING 5 / 10