The Garden State can count some of the finest musicians of the past fifty years among its illustrious ranks, and most residents will point to Bruce Springsteen as their champion. For decades the E-Street Band has channeled the aspirational romanticism of anyone who has wanted to turn off the Jersey Turnpike and never look back (i.e. everyone), and you can find that strain of thought in Jersey artists from Titus Andronicus to Fetty Wap. But Springsteen’s glorious rock and roll has always invited we the people of New Jersey to imagine the best versions of ourselves rather allowing us to sit with the status quo. I give you Real Estate, suburban sages of Ridgewood, NJ.
New Jersey is a state of suburbs. It’s a truth to be found in Census Bureau reports and Philip Roth novels alike, and the values that sent Americans in droves to the suburbs throughout the 20 century are the same values that characterize Real Estate’s music: economy, simplicity, comfort. These have been at the heart of every Real Estate record to date, and they remain so on In Mind.
It wasn’t certain that this would be the case. The band has seen some meaningful change since 2014’s Atlas. Lead vocalist Martin Courtney has been off on a solo outing, and, more notably, founding member and lead guitarist Matt Mondanile has left to pursue his solo project Ducktails full time. There were questions about where Real Estate would go next; the interplay between Monandile’s guitar and Courtney’s voice was an essential part of the band. It gave off the easygoing intimacy of childhood friends (Monandile, Courtney, and bassist Alex Bleeker grew up together in Ridgewood). For better or worse, however, Real Estate found a natural replacement in Julian Lynch, a talented experimental guitarist, also a childhood friend. Ridgewood runs deep.
So the hometown feeling persists, as does Real Estate’s sound. Occasionally you hear a flourish from Lynch that Monandile might have held back, but only if you’re fishing for distinctions. Real Estate remains precise and consistent, and they retain their impeccable ear for melody. Jangly guitars play over a dreamy haze as Courtney sings about suburban settings and sunny skies, Real Estate’s go-to lyrical motifs. Lead single and opening track “Darling” is an exemplary slice of the record and the band in general, a song that stands with Real Estate’s best. Strong guitar melody? Check. Ambiguously feel-good vibes? Double check. Sun imagery? Triple check. And is it Jersey? For God’s sake, the opening line shouts out the state bird.
The consistency here begets an interesting comparison. In Mind was released the same day as Hot Thoughts, and there are undeniable similarities, more in career trajectory than sound, between Real Estate and Spoon. Both are top-notch bands with a superb sense of songcraft, and both are at risk of being underrated when they fail to deviate from their established style. But where Britt Daniel and co. deliver a different flavor of swagger from record to record, Real Estate get hemmed in by their laidback approach, stuck in a perpetual kickback between relaxation and malaise. This is a long way of saying that Real Estate, like the Jersey suburbs, can be boring.
This is not to say, however, that In Mind brings nothing new to the table. As the title would suggest, the album is more introspective than Real Estate’s past work. There are demons in the suburbs to uncover, to which the Census Bureau and Philip Roth will once again attest. There’s a passing acknowledgment of current events on “Diamond Eyes”, a lovely track if a mediocre protest song. More of the reflection on In Mind is dedicated to the ironic frustration of the comfortable consistency that characterizes Real Estate and the suburbs. In an admirable display of self-awareness, one song is called “Same Sun”, another is called “Holding Pattern”. On “After the Moon”, there’s a chorus of, “Over and over you turn that same key.” While the feeling of repetition isn’t unique to the suburbs, it’s especially strong there, and Real Estate capture it well.
The best song on the record, “Two Arrows”, is the biggest break from the standard Real Estate sound. Halfway through, a harsh guitar line picks up and builds until a cacophonous and abrupt conclusion. Courtney has explained that the song was inspired by “She’s So Heavy”, and it shows. It’s an immensely rewarding departure from form.
When you consider “Two Arrows” next to the album’s preoccupation with staying in place, In Mind makes you wonder about the next record. On “Stained Glass”, Courtney sings, “For half a dozen years/I have dreamt vaguely of here/And I know there’ll be a day/When I have to go away.” Will there? The band is nearing the point where consistency becomes predictability. Until then, though, Real Estate is right at home. B