The kings-elect of slack rock are back with The Main Thing, their 5th studio album marking the latest in 10-odd years of releases and their first in 3 years. Over the last decade, Real Estate have made melancholic, laid-back guitar-indie their own. The burning question from critics with each release since Days, their most critically-acclaimed album, is “what have you done for me lately?” Seemingly, we want more from Real Estate than great albums in their own style.
In recent interviews, the band’s lead singer and main songwriter, Martin Courtney, has talked about how the band has grown and how his influences have similarly changed, wanting to write songs focusing on existential anxiety, the meaning of life and fatherhood. Courtney has also talked about the new album being “Do or Die” – a time to assess whether they can break out of their stereo-typed sound and offer something with a new and challenging direction. I would personally question the need to fix something that isn’t broken.
The first tracks certainly lay the band’s cards on the table. ‘Friday’ opens with ambient synth and a bassline, like a mix between Zero7 and Beta Band, while slowly the drums and jangly rhythm guitar fade in and you realise you’re listening to a Real Estate album. The following track and lead single, ‘Paper Cup’, feels like an even greater departure. The violin and synth riffs and bongo undercurrent hark back to 70’s disco, likely due to the influence of the featured Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso. If you didn’t know better you’d think this was a Bombay Bicycle Club song. ‘Also A But’, later in the album, has an odd synth riff running throughout which gives what might be a classic Real Estate song a very different feel. In much of the album you can hear processed beats, on ‘Gone’ most notably as ‘Sting’ merges fluidly into ‘Silent World’.
Some of the best points of the album are the songs that still sound like classic Real Estate – ‘You’, ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Shallow Sun’ are highlights, where the long riff sections can devolve into the loose and rhythmic jams.
So, the criticism of Real Estate’s sound is that it hasn’t really evolved – you can place any song from this album of any of its predecessors and it would fit in seamlessly – but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I see every new album and song as an endless variation on a theme that works. If you can settle into the vibe then you will enjoy everything they’ve ever produced, even if not every song is immediately memorable.
Looking at The Main Thing individually then, the same is generally true. There’s evidence of experimentation and expansion of their range without diverging too far away from the core element of their sound. It’s not the best Real Estate have produced, and it’s unlikely to get into any Top 10 lists come the end of the year, but the album still keeps up their consistently high standards and shows signs that they are developing their sound, less changing direction and more changing course.