Real Estate’s light touch and breezy disposition have always made them seem like lightweights — mid-period R.E.M. without the art and urgency, say, or the Byrds without their countercultural ties. Over the course of three albums they’ve attempted to turn contentment, mild nostalgia and other passive emotions into music actively worth listening to. Early on, the results skewed dumb (“Budweiser, Sprite, do you feel alright?” a song on their self-titled album asked, maybe rhetorically), but by 2011′s Days, the band had tightened their musicianship and sharpened their sound. What emerged was an uncanny combination: cloudy states brought on by music that was crystal clear.
Atlas isn’t a shift in sound so much as a refinement. Shades of 1970s California country and Midwestern roots-rock find their way into the music. Matt Mondanile and Martin Courtney’s guitars — the cornerstone of the band’s texture — are crisp but warm, a paradox they repurpose from surf-rock and the unpunk style ’80s bands like the Feelies.
Like a lake, Real Estate’s sound is shimmering and superficial but always suggests depth. Courtney’s lyrics evoke loss and regret without ever confronting them (a common coping strategy for American millennials) and in every moment of peaceful detachment is the possibility that peace is disappearing behind us for good. “I don’t want to die/ lonely and uptight,” he sings on “Crimes” — a sentiment that stands in stark contrast to music so carefree.
Real Estate has become a quietly versatile band: Recorded as an album of folk-rock songs, Atlas functions just as well as ambience. (For all the jokes made about the band making hipster barbecue music, people still need music to play at barbecues.) Yes, they are noncommittal, but with a slyness and grace that in 2009 their music barely hinted at. “Don’t know where I want to be/ But I’m glad that you’re with me,” Courtney sings on “Primitive.” “And all I know is it’d be easy to leave.” The resolution — that he stays — lies in a line he somehow doesn’t have to sing to make heard.