Regardless of how any sort of music sounds to an individual, there’s always going to be someone for whom it appeals to. That’s about as basic as critical analysis comes, but it’s still worth remembering that the spectrum of subjectivity is so vast and wildly diverse that literally everything will find its audience at some point. But there are some acts for which those limits can feel more threadbare than most, and in the spheres of dream-pop and jangle-pop, it can be difficult to see why Real Estate would be chosen as the best on offer. In a pair of sounds that already don’t have the most to offer as far as sonic engagement and kineticism, Real Estate have just never done anything that feels as though it’s pushing the envelope, spending the majority of their four albums as a solidly pretty but seldom memorable footnote in a genre that’s capable of some beautiful melodic composition if nothing else. But clearly the groundswell is there, exemplified by album number five The Main Thing arriving as Real Estate break their decade mark as a band.
Theirs is a relative longevity that’s not exactly objectionable but has rarely produced anything that inspires much visceral response, and nothing has really changed in The Main Thing, where a sound that’s pleasant but starved of dynamics hasn’t budged an inch and remains just as forgettable as ever. It’s not like Real Estate don’t have that know-how to make music that at least sounds decent either, but filtered through such a formulaic, workmanlike dream-pop lens does absolutely nothing for it in the long run. Even for those far more deeply ingrained in the sound and all it has to offer, there’s better albums out there than The Main Thing; it’s fine enough to have on, but when any deeper stimulus is borderline nonexistent, it’s hard to say much of anything about it.
Honestly, the review could be left there, as Real Estate really don’t do much worth evaluating much deeper here, if only because nothing actually sticks and even the vibe it cultivates rarely evolves or produces more than blissed-out mood music. At least on the purely technical basis of Real Estate come up with, it’s not outwardly egregious to listen to; Paper Cup is the clearest highlight with its bossa nova percussion and sinuous sophisti-pop guitar solos, but in cultivating a similar listening experience to ‘60s pop with its unthreatening jangles and restrained yet noticeable orchestral opulence, cuts like November and Falling Down do scratch a particular itch, even if it’s only surface level. And to Real Estate’s total credit, they’ve attached enough lush, dreamlike production clarity to ensure everything is as light and pillowy as possible, and the general smoothness is easy to sink back into at most given moments.
But when it becomes apparent that that’s basically the only trick they’ve got, The Main Thing becomes a real chore to get through. It becomes even more difficult to pick out any standout moments, positive or negative, when everything congeals into a watery mass that has astoundingly little definition among its individual parts. It doesn’t help that Martin Courtney’s vocals are as breathy and lacking in muscle as they are, something that only further compounds how little motion within this album there really is. Nothing grows or evolves or opens out into something new; it’s the same one-paced jangle effectively all the way through, and for as well-produced as that might be, it’s a tough ask to build an entire album around that one specific sonic affectation and expect it to land consistently. Stepping even further from that, this is supposed to be an album exhibiting signs of burnout and anxiety about current political and environmental situations, though it’s not like any of that is apparant with how nonplussed Real Estate come across towards any of it, and how difficult it is to even pay attention. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how Bombay Bicycle Club spectacularly missed their mark on Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, and while Real Estate aren’t quite that clueless, there’s still next to nothing that conveys any sort of fiery, impassioned emotion.
It’s why The Main Thing is effectively destined to be the sort of album that’s completely forgotten about in record time. It takes a sound that’s already pretty disposable, especially in the modern day, strips it of the features that could’ve bolstered some of that longevity, and proceeds to do nothing of interest with whatever dregs are left. That might come across as a bit too pointed for an album whose inoffensiveness is its greatest defining trait, but beyond a production job with the potential to elevate if there was more to work with, The Main Thing is an empty listen falling square in the middle of the road. There’s nothing to be too worked up about, but there’s nothing to write home about either; it just exists, and even then, it probably won’t do that for long.
For fans of: Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils, DIIV
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Main Thing’ by Real Estate is released on 28th February on Domino Recordings.