A band for 15 years now, with a half-dozen records to its canny name, Real Estate knows how the press cycle inevitably goes: Someone somewhere at last had a realization about what their songs needed to say and how they should sound, so (at least according to brief biographies like this one) they finally made the best album of their career. But here’s the thing: Real Estate has been so consistently compelling for those 15 years, with their coruscant indie rock shuffles perfectly reflecting the spellbinding glow of suburban ennui, that they know when they have done it. That is, they know when they have written songs that shimmer and fetch and radiate despite or because of the gloom lurking in their grooves. It is the gift and curse of self-awareness, of sticking together since childhood.
So Real Estate, in turn, needs you to know that Daniel—their sixth full-length album, recorded in an ebullient nine-day spree in RCA Studio A, in Nashville with celebrated producer and songwriter Daniel Tashian—is quite possibly their best album. In 11 compulsively tuneful songs, they connect the uninhibited wonder of their earliest work with the earned perspective of adulthood. What more could you need from Real Estate at 15?
Martin Courtney knew he wanted to write a pop record, a set of instantly accessible songs where the chorus arrived in, say, the first 40 seconds. During the last decade, or essentially since making Atlas, Real Estate did what was only natural for any beloved and freshly aging indie rock institution: They gently pushed back against praise as an effortlessly melodic and quietly radiant band. Colors darkened. Textures curdled. Songs stretched toward the six- and even seven-minute mark. But what if, as Courtney and cofounder Alex Bleeker often say these days, they again just “Let Real Estate be Real Estate,” to shimmer and fetch and radiate without hesitation or second guesses?
Courtney actually learned of Tashian through his daughter, who adored an album he’d produced, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. The band reached out and spotted an instant connection despite their distinct wheelhouses—the Grammy-winning Nashville country-pop guy who’d helmed several smashes and the Northeast indie rock quintet with narcotic guitars. Real Estate had never really worked with anyone who wasn’t already a bud. There in Dave Cobb’s famous Nashville lair, Tashian was not shy with his outsider advice about how to boost this song or that one, even playfully throwing the occasional candy bar to emphasize he wanted to hear more. Real Estate had been thinking about R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and ’90s “soft-rock radio,” the background music of their youth. Tashian helped lead them back toward it, toward an improved edition of the less self-conscious band they’d been at the start.
Daniel certainly sounds like classic Real Estate, simply leveled up with the subtle but unabashed touches of a producer who has actually lived inside pop powerhouses. The chiming guitars and plaintive verses of “Haunted World” summon the band that first emerged to acclaim in 2009, with Courtney doing his best to sing his way around existential confusion. But in the chorus, dexterous instrumental harmonies (that’s Nashville ace Justin Schipper on pedal steel) and faint backing vocals propel the song anew, its tight hook snagging in a second. Tashian suggested they fortify the refrain, and he was right.
Or there’s the marvelous thrum of “Airdrop,” with Bleeker’s busy bass and Sammi Niss’ insistent drums pushing Courtney into the wistful chorus as if he’s riding a hang glider. “The sun went down/We let it,” he sings four times to end the song, the lines essentially built to be cooed back at him from a crowd. “Never been so contented/I won’t ever forget it.” That’s Real Estate’s long-relatable smiling sadness, lifted in proper Music City style. Listen, too, for Real Estate’s squiggly versions of classic Nashville licks during “Flowers,” where the mercury of pedal steel and the twinkle of a Wurlitzer illuminate acoustic strums like stars in the night sky. A song of dislocation and constancy, it’s a reminder of the common way we use music no matter the genre or scene—to find our way forward.
Daniel is a complete string of these compulsive moments: the crisscrossed harmonies of “Water Underground,” the delightful sway and rise of “Market Street,” the enchanting but deceptive simplicity of “Interior.” Real Estate manages the rarest of pop tricks here—to sound effortless but be artful, with all the flourishes and tricks tucked so smartly into songs that you only spot them when you unpack what makes all the tunes so winning and sticky.
But this, of course, is not the Real Estate of their MP3-blog salad days. Four members are married, with Niss in a long-term relationship. There are actual kids in the equation now. And the world outside has darkened considerably in 15 years, in all those ways that require no recounting here. Time and again, Daniel wrestles with that juxtaposition—external alienation and madness, internal responsibility and hope. These are songs of confusion, of trying to find a way to be present and better in broken times. “Now and then, I can pretend the sun is shining,” Courtney admits during “Freeze Brain,” the keys of Matthew Kallman and guitars of Julian Lynch framing a lambent haze around him. “Let’s let some light in.” Ain’t that the struggle, to find some joy despite all the forces that filch it from us?
In Nashville, all five members of Real Estate shared a rental, cutting up in close quarters after the imposition of separation of these last few years. Several days into recording, they were discussing album titles when someone suggested “Daniel,” simply because it seemed funny to bestow a human name upon a record. Was it for Daniel Tashian? Maybe. Was it a nod to The Replacements’ Tim? Possibly. Was it the sign of a band that has now been around long enough to take its music seriously without taking itself or its perception too seriously? Absolutely.
Daniel is a record of wonderful pop songs, its string of hooks and stream of worry irresistibly connected in the way few bands have ever done better than Real Estate. But perhaps just as important, it is an expression of the self-acceptance that can come with maturity, with realizing it’s enough to be who you want to be. “What is it that you want to hear? There’s only so much time,” Courtney croons during “You Are Here,” Daniel’s ingenious and strutting finale. “Best we can do is be happy here/Sing another line.” It is a mission statement for Real Estate at 15, a reminder that they are the band of their childhood dreams and that is cool. To that end, they’ve never been better at being Real Estate than they are right now, on Daniel, their new best album yet.