When I was 19, I studied abroad in Madrid, and for the most part I liked it a lot. Broke enough that I dared not waste my scant euros on Metro fare, I spent most of my time on foot, covering as many neighborhoods as my arches would allow, memorizing the architecture, the graffiti. The city’s late hours suited my insomniac tendencies; I was totally content to pass out, drunk-ish, after some 5 AM churros y chocolate. My biggest complaint, ironically, derived directly from the reason I came to Spain in the first place. So few madrileños spoke fluent English, I found myself completely immersed in castellano. And this became very lonely after a while because although I was a competent enough Spanish-speaker to lisp along with the young people I met at bars, and capable enough to understand my host mother when I helped her with the cooking, and passable enough to keep up with the soap operas she watched all day in her Argüelles apartment, being competent and capable and passable didn’t make me comfortable or happy. I missed the language with which I had been raised, in which I had learned to read and write and joke and fall in love, just as I missed the parents and friends and boyfriend who were waiting for me back in New England, ready to converse sans-ceceo.
Last week, while my band was on tour, we stayed in Copenhagen with my friend Christian, who, up until a few days ago, I had only known via e-mail. We’re both members of a “Transatlantic side project” called Dark Warble and have chatted online with some frequency for the past two years, but never out loud. After our show, we went drinking at Mikkeller Bar with a slew of Christian’s friends, all of whom spoke flawless English. And while Christian is great company, this, too, felt lonely; I felt guilty for my relative incompetence at other languages, and for how often on the tour I had relied on promoters, hosts, and other bands’ knowledge of English to get by. I even felt guilty when people at shows sang along to our lyrics — how many songs do I know in French? Maybe a third of Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson? I couldn’t decide whether it was worse to live in a country in which hardly anyone wanted to converse in my native language, or whether it was worse to travel and rely on other people’s linguistic charity to compensate for my sheltered American ignorance of other tongues.
When we woke up the next morning on about four hours of sleep, I was dead tired, with ears ringing from last night’s show, when the lyrics were inaudible and irrelevant; the vocals an indefinable melodic component suspended amidst the hard-panned, shimmery guitars, which were their own kind of speech. Christian was making us porridge and coffee and playing the second Real Estate album. And it was sort of perfect for this silent early morning in which everyone was unified in grogginess: the songs were so simple and melodic, they seemed to encapsulate anxiety and complacency at the same time. Listening to a language that was so universal, I felt a little less sad about the inadequacies of language. I relaxed a little bit. Real Estate is very good for that.
When I first heard about Real Estate, I subconsciously lumped them in with the beach bums and reverb-rockers of the chillwavish late aughties. These were suburban boys, most reviewers reported, boys concerned with lazing around in the warm yet shifting shoreline sands of post-collegiate Jersey living. And shit, I couldn’t think of anything more unappetizing than a description like that. I abhor the sun and all recreational activities that involve its presence; I douse myself in SPF 30 every day, even when I don’t leave the house until well after the sun’s already set. (See: most days.) For that reason, beachy music rarely does the trick for me; I like songs that are twisty, dark, complicated, moody. From the early press I read, Real Estate didn’t seem to be up my alley. And so I ignored them.
But a few years after their debut album came out, it served as the misery soundtrack for my then-roommate, who was lovesick with an intense (but inadequately requited) übercrush. And something clicked. Sure, these songs had Jersey Shore soundtrack-worthy titles and motifs (“Beach Comber,” “Pool Swimmers,” “Atlantic City,” “Let’s Rock the Beach,” to name a few). But apart from whatever oceanside shellac was applied to Real Estate — due to their production, or the press, or a combination of both — there was a depth of feeling to these songs, encompassing stagnancy, numb warmth, the loneliness of occupying a familiar place. I realized Real Estate wasn’t an afternoon on the docks covered in tanning oil and a bikini; Real Estate was a morning hangover with sunlight in eyes, a loose-limbed, surreal saunter into the daytime world. Way more appealing than a day at the beach.
Their latest, Atlas, maintains that looseness, but foregoes its loosey-gooseyness; the guitar leads are meandering, but taut, a la Kurt Vile’s 2013 Waking on a Pretty Daze, and the songs at times trace an easy lineage to the Nerves, especially on sweetly adolescent opener “Had to Hear.” The outro of “The Bend” recalls Terror Twilight-era Pavement. Other moments seem distinctly Clean-inspired. There’s nothing ostensibly confrontational or boundary-pushing in any of these songs; instead, Real Estate seems to have better defined the lazy, hazy balance of is-it-autobiographical inertia which made them compelling from their first album on.
The lyrics, too, have become more insecure, dipping at least a toe or two in darkness: “Crime” boasts an “I wanna die” chorus, while “Primitive” finds comfort even in its directionless narrative: “Don’t know where I wanna be/But I’m glad that you’re with me.” Rather than seeming adolescently fatalistic, singer Martin Courtney’s relaxed intonations of his occasional somber content work in tandem with the breezy echoed hammer-ons of lead guitarist Matt Mondanile.
Even though Courtney is often lyrically vague, it’s his sunny-cum-somber melodies that are most effective at transmitting emotion. And in his most poignant moments, he showcases the ambiguity between feeling comfortable in your own skin and watching time pass too quickly, as on “Past Lives,” when he sings, “I cannot come back to this neighborhood without feeling my own age.” He almost revels in his indecisive language on “Talking Backwards,” on which he croons, “We can talk for hours and the line is still engaged/We’re not getting any closer… And I might as well be talking backwards.” The brief moments of clarity allow us to connect the dots that shape Atlas’ emotional tone: happy-sounding music that encapsulates a kind of unhappiness: the confusing miscommunications between loin and heart, the empty roboticism of longing, languishing.
Language is inept at communicating this kind of feeling, but melody triumphs. And I think there’s a power to music that allows us to pull emotion from places other than what’s blatantly, verbally stated. The emotional cues on Atlas come from its entire melodic package, and that’s what makes it a language that can be so universally accessed. Nice one.