For nearly a decade, Real Estate have made music as blissful and unhurried as a cat lolling about in a sunbeam. Their endless reserves of tranquility have led to being labeled as a “chill” band, a disservice to the power of a calm state and the humbling moments where one takes a deep breath instead of capitulating to anxiety. Such a wandering, euphoric heart might bring be perceived as a lack of inspiration, but nevertheless they’ve stood their ground: “Our careless lifestyle / It was not so unwise.”
Their new record, In Mind, is their longest yet, and their first without founding guitarist Matt Mondanile, who left the band amongst mysterious circumstances. Mondanile was the group’s flashiest musician, as we learned with each Ducktails release; the division of labor within a band can always be picked apart, but he seemed at least largely responsible for their roaming, rheumy guitar lines and jingle-jangle melodies. Within circles overly attuned to the shifts in indie rock personnel, the loss of all this might’ve been as devastating as, say, the absence of Amber Coffman’s voice in Dirty Projectors.
That makes it a little surprising how much the band managed to stay the course, both in sound and temperament. Those indelible guitar lines are still front and center, ably replicated by Martin Courtney and new guitarist Julian Lynch, with the remaining members—now a five-piece featuring contributing keyboardist Matt Kallman as a full-timer—making only the subtlest adjustment to their steadfast mission statement. These are songs about passing the days in satiated comfort, appreciating the surrounding nature, waiting for inspiration to reveal itself amidst a pattern of monotony, the idle pleasures of daydreaming—all of it well-worn territory for the band.
The crucial difference is that they’re that much older, and unlike some restless creative types, have aged properly into their roles: Courtney, whose milky, yearning voice has always staked their claim at inner harmony, is now a father of two and lives in upstate New York. The album begins with a greyscale synth wash and a cleanly picked guitar, before Courtney enters with some lyrics about watching birds from the porch and waiting “for the warm sun to return / Impatiently.” A meditative fatalism runs throughout the album, as Courtney sings of reminding himself to wait for what knows will come naturally. “Why do you go to all the trouble / When you know what comes next?” he asks on “Serve the Song,” whose Zen focus is accentuated by a psychedelic wash of guitars that begins halfway through and barely lets up.
With their leisurely tempos and melodic warmth, Real Estate always seemed like they could’ve been a jam band; they’ve grown bolder about quoting the Grateful Dead as a formative influence in recent years, and it’s exceedingly easy to imagine older, tighter songs sprawling into the ten or twenty minute mark when performed live. On In Mind there are several passages where, for lack of a better phrase, it sounds like they’re just hanging out. “Two Arrows” flows like an inner tube down a lazy river before branching off into a languid jam session; “Time” sighs and shuffles, the guitars plumes of smoke floating upwards, before resolving with some sublime piano chords. That instinct is counterbalanced by songs like “White Light” and “Same Sun,” which pack their wanderlust into tight pop structures detailed with virtuosic, ramble-tamble guitar work.
I’ve heard Real Estate put down as “Oxycontin rock,” a dig that implies their music produces nothing but a numbing haze through which all mundanities seem profound. Rock n’ roll is associated with passion and agency, and these are not quite songs to inspire anyone to action. (The closest they get to a political statement is the flat “Diamond Eyes,” which would’ve been better left at the drum circle.) That their music has seen no grand evolution, only a continual refining of their musical charms, brings easy critique from listeners demanding ambition and innovation. One might say they’re in a holding pattern, and lo, there is a song called “Holding Pattern.”
But the pleasure they provide is difficult to dismiss; there’s so much life in these new songs, formula or not. Context is important with all music, but it’s almost painful to imagine hearing this for the first time while seated at a desk, under some fluorescent lights, as many consumers now find new music. I connected with it most while lying in bed, watching the spring light come through a dusty window, illuminating the particles coming through the air. My favorite song is “Saturday,” which begins dirge-like before breaking into full jog as Courtney sings about the necessity of moving forward, even if you feel the same: “When a stranger is living in your old house / What does where you were born still say about you? / It’d be best to jettison what you can’t redo.”