Album Review: Real Estate – Half A Human EP

[Domino; 2021]

In 2021, it’s easy to take Real Estate for granted. Since their hazy yet poignant 2009 self-titled debut, the New Jersey-based band has released albums at a reliable clip, each more polished than the last. Last year’s The Main Thing had several strong moments, including the disco-tinged standout “Paper Cup” featuring Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath. After 2017’s stagnant In Mind, Real Estate returned to pushing the boundaries of what a song by them should sound like. Yet the album came and went with little fanfare. So their latest six song EP, Half A Human, seems just as easy to take for granted, as most of the songs originated during sessions for The Main Thing.

Significantly — and thankfully — it can’t.

Vocalist/guitarist Martin Courtney, bassist/vocalist Alex Bleeker, keyboardist Matt Kallman, and guitarist Julian Lynch worked on these six songs throughout the pandemic. It’s clear they’ve taken the time to truly deconstruct what makes their suburban introspective brand of indie rock tick — even if it meant taking a few steps backward in their evolution — and rebuild from the foundations. The result is a collection of songs that is a little less fussy, a little more interesting, and a lot more self-assured.

The instrumental opener “Desire Path” starts with gentle, shimmering guitar strums and thumping bass that seem to be building to an impending climax. Real Estate albums often include instrumental interludes that reinforce their atmospheres: that one is used to open an EP is the first example of them tinkering with their existing formula. What comes next is another breath of fresh air: the band’s live staple “Half A Human”. The song’s warm hooks call back to the band’s earlier days (think “Green Aisles” on Days), while the lyrics lay firmly on the topic of gratification: “But more likely than not / I’m with you.” The band ups the tempo on “Soon”, with Courtney examining the pointlessness of putting off the big changes in one’s life (“There’s no such thing as soon”), an idea that packs an especially heavy punch in 2021.

Importantly, Half A Human delivers on new ideas that aren’t impossible to see Real Estate pursue on future projects. “D+”, written and sung by Bleeker, opens with the dirtiest riff the band has ever recorded. The song settles into a galloping beat with him singing about the most traumatic of events: the aftermath of 9/11; “Never forget, smoking two cigarettes on the outskirts of town / peeking over.” The swirling guitar riffs that thread the song reflect the fits of confusion, uneasiness, and fear of that moment, ones that he and many others are still sorting out. Another highlight, “In the Garden”, starts innocently enough, with the band’s easygoing playing complementing Courtney’s musings of “I do believe I will be fine / If I just close my eyes,” before their melodies take an uneasy turn at the chorus where Courtney contemplates the fragility of his existence: “I’m fortunate enough to remain naive / If just for now.” At just under the four-minute mark, the song launches into an instrumental session, where harder takes on the song’s central melodies take control while chirping effects again reinforce the song’s lyrical theme.

Taking things for granted goes hand in hand with predictability. Real Estate, thankfully, have delivered a collection of songs that at least put this trajectory in question. The questions now are whether fans will champion these songs and whether new listeners will take notice, and the answers are out of the band’s hands. Yet it’s also clear that Real Estate don’t care about these things; “Life keeps changing and additional responsibilities and stresses keep being added, but this band is still here,” said Courtney leading up to the EP’s release. On Half A Human, they’ve taken steps to create songs that better reflect their states of mind and, as a result, have uncovered a new confidence and self-assuredness. Regardless of their music’s reception, their changing circumstances, the world at large, they’re right where they want to be.