ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: Real Estate’s ‘Atlas’

MMC Writers reflect on their favorite records of the 2010s.

Growing up is hard to do. Just ask the Rolling Stones or Weezer. Even so, it can be done with incredible grace, especially when put to the right music. Real Estate’s third album Atlas from 2014 is a shining example of this.

One of the coolest feelings you can experience is being in a record shop when the album being played in the store grabs you so instantly that you have no choice but to buy it right then and there. Such was the case for me with Atlas.

I should confess right now that the reason this is my nominee for Album of the Decade is because few albums in my entire life have moved me in the way this one did at the exact moment that it did: August 15, 2014 at Mad World Records in Denton, Texas.

I remember the date because it was the day my wife and I moved our son to the University of North Texas (#gomeangreen) and officially became empty-nesters. It was a day I had long dreaded. I love both of my kids and wasn’t ready to let go of either one of them. When our daughter had moved out a few years earlier, I knew the countdown was only ramping up. You can prepare yourself for goodbyes, but when they actually happen, you find out there’s way to make yourself ready for that moment.

It was in this context that I heard Real Estate’s Atlas for the first time. After we got our son all moved in and said our goodbyes, my wife and I headed to the downtown square to walk around, neither one of us particularly ready to go home. I wandered into Mad World Records and started browsing the used jazz section. Suddenly, a song started playing that sounded like the opening chords to “Peace Attack,” one of my favorite Sonic Youth songs from one of my favorite Sonic Youth albums, so I was automatically intrigued. Had Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo released a solo record? Then the singing started and I knew the answer was no, but the words kept me interested:

I’m out again on my own…
My mind is drawing a blank,
don’t know if I can go back…
It’s been so long, I call you up…
I had to hear you just to feel near you…
(excerpts from “Had to Hear”)

Ever have a moment where a song, a line, just pierces your heart as if, like Dylan said, “it was written in my soul?” I didn’t know who this was, but it sounded like they were live-soundtracking what was happening in my life at that very moment.

The next song just compounded the feeling of knowing that, as soon as we headed back home, things were never going to be the same:

I cannot come back to this neighborhood
Without feeling my own age
I walk past these houses where we once stood
I see past lives but somehow you’re still here
(from “Past Lives”)

Were these guys also 44-year-old dads who had just said goodbye to their children? No! These guys are kids themselves! How are they writing songs with this kind of depth? Sure, these could be taken as your average collection of love and breakup songs, but these tracks contain a longing to them that could be applied to the changing of any relationship, whether a romantic or between a father and his kids. And then they couched these lyrics in a sound that shows a definite Byrds influence, from the jangley guitars to the delicate harmonies.

But the song that sold me on wanting, no, needing this album was “The Bend.” As any parent or kid will tell you, those days leading up to a big change in the family dynamic can be fraught with tension. When the song started, I was already barely looking at the records in the racks, completely mesmerized by the music I was hearing. And then the words started:

Haven’t I been clear
Or do I sound insincere?
I’m just trying to make some sense of this
Before I lose another year

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to crying in a record store.

I bought the CD right there (they were, sadly, out of the vinyl) and couldn’t wait to listen to it on the ride home. It was an eventful drive, a normal 45-minute sprint turned into a 2-hour haul because of traffic accidents and the fact there is no good way to get from Denton to Arlington, especially at rush-hour on a Friday. I listened to the album straight through twice, and for the rest of 2014, Atlas was pretty much all I listened to. The more I listened, the more I would hear words that narrated that period of adjustment:

Because it’s so hard to feel
In control here
Like I’m behind the wheel
But it won’t steer
(also from “The Bend”)

I don’t wanna die
Lonely and uptight
(from “Crime”)

I stare at the hands on the clock
I’m still waiting for them to stop
The earliest light is just shining in
And I’ve no idea where the day’s been
(from “Navigator”)

I also went back and listened to Real Estate’s previous album, Days, and in that album, you can hear the seeds being planted for what would be magnificently expressed on Atlas. It seemed to me Real Estate were already masters of expressing the dread and wonder of both growing up and dealing with life on a personal basis. Subsequent albums by both the band (2017’s In Time) and singer-songwriter Martin Courtney (2015’s Many Moons) have only cemented this perception of them to me.

I will go so far as to say that not only is Atlas my nominee for Album of the Decade, but that Real Estate is my pick for Band of the Decade.