Real Estate Are Perfectly Pleasant on 'Daniel'

BY Sam BoerPublished Feb 22, 2024


Since their inception, Real Estate have embraced their identity (or, as they’ve described it in the past, their “non-identity”) as a bunch of average kids who honed their skills in their parents’ basements in Ridgewood, New Jersey, just killing time in upper-middle class white suburbia.

Now that the band — whose signature, suburban-slacker sound rests in the annals of 2010s indie rock — have been releasing albums for over 15 years, their latest release could have confronted this history, reckoned with the significant change the members have undergone as they enter their late 30s. Instead, Daniel keeps things steady, marrying the band’s long-standing chemistry with punchy pop arrangements that carry the hollow feeling of loafing around your old neighbourhood a decade and a half after you’ve moved away.

At its best, Daniel shimmers with an inviting, sunny sound, emphasized by producer Daniel Tashian. “Water Underground” is totally refreshing, and the album’s best articulation of frontman Martin Courtney’s pop sensibilities. You can hear the band’s deep-rooted connection (Courtney and drummer Alex Bleeker have played together since childhood), with every instrument placed just-so, an immaculately organized (but always mild) spice drawer. Playfully referencing David Byrne’s iconic plea for water in “Once in a Lifetime,” the song sees Courtney trying to make sense of the sound in his head and find calm, with its buoyant arrangement suggesting that things will be just fine in the end.

However, it’s difficult to sustain an album addressing a vague feeling of uneasiness in broad strokes. Daniel’s crisp arrangements can feel hollow when the songs (such as “Freeze Brain” and “Market Street”) lack emotional specificity and purpose. Throughout the record, Courtney takes on the role of suburban flâneur, relaying visions of Riverside Drive, Market Street and the Barrytown Inn — all while keeping an eye on the sun’s pesky tendency to rise, shine and fall (on “Haunted World,” one of the album’s darker tracks, Courtney laments that, “There is no rest, there is no sleep / The day becomes the night”). Emotional revelation has never been Real Estate’s purpose, but a few clear insights would make the meandering feel worthwhile and would better match the album’s precise sound.

It's worth noting that Courtney has long held that, for Real Estate, “the music is more important than the lyrics,” and that words should simply act as a vessel to get a listener deeper into the sound. Real Estate are not trying to dig up profound lyrical truths on Daniel, and that’s fine; it’s a project built on concise, direct lyrics that fit effectively, as when Courtney sings on "say No Mre," “We sit in furnished rooms / Listen to Harvest Moon / Making plans to see each other soon." But it can be frustrating when Courtney’s fitting, clear lyrics clash with those that are distractingly vapid. When Courtney sings, “When I’m a solitary dude / All alone with my thoughts / You know how much I think of you / It is quite a lot," it feels like a cringey Ringo Starr verse — the magic lightness of Daniel’s sound darkens, and it’s hard to keep following the band’s ambling. Ultimately, Daniel is perfectly pleasant. At this point, what more can we really ask of Real Estate?

(Domino Records )

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