Real Estate’s 2020 album The most important never had a chance. As vocalist and guitarist Martin Courtney puts it, the New Jersey band spent an unusually long time on their fifth LP in an effort to make something that couldn’t be dismissed as “another Real Estate record.” A self-consciously big statement from a band that specialized in endearingly minor, the album was released just days before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. But even with better timing, it’s hard to imagine it could have lived up to its lofty ambitions to rekindle the critical goodwill once enjoyed by a veteran indie group whose humble guitar pop was out of step with the times, even during their heyday in the early 10’s.
Courtney wanted to make The most important Real Estate’s best album, but up to a point he seems to understand that he wasn’t being true to himself by forcing it. After all, this is the same songwriter that was on it to dawn that it shouldn’t take all summer to “write just one simple song”. And so for his second solo album Magical Characters, written while separated from his bandmates during the pandemic, Courtney defaulted to the more carefree songwriting that has always come most naturally to him. After throwing in so much The most important with so little to show for it, “I didn’t really want to think too deeply about any part of the process of making this record,” he explained.
Courtney has never needed an excuse to dwell on comfort; he has already designed one of the most tension-free discographies in modern indie rock. But on Magical Characters, which he mostly set up at night while his kids slept and his wife worked late shifts at the hospital, the good vibes serve as a kind of defense mechanism. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, he retreated to some of his safest, most sacred memories of adolescence, especially those transitional years when he found the freedom to roam outside the New Jersey suburbs.
“In the basement of my mind, I’m on a bicycle in 1999,” he sings on “Merlin.” On “Shoes,” he similarly reminisces about long days with nothing but time to kill: “In wastelands with dusty shoes, we found things to do.” The accompaniments are suitably blissful, chiming as always, but with just enough variations to distinguish it from a Real Estate LP. The reverb is turned down and the vocals are pushed way up; strings and pedal steels further heat up several tracks, while Matt Barrick of The Walkmen gives some thrust behind the drum kit, especially on ‘Sailboat’, a sweet homage to Yo La Tengo’s mellow rippers. It’s all brought to a hi-fi finish by Rob Schnapf, Elliott Smith’s producer whose presence highlights the similarities between Courtney’s drooping sighs and Smith’s own wistful tenor.
Despite the overt optimism, there are cracks in the album’s dreamy facade. Courtney’s lyrics are full of allusions to quiet houses and empty lots, all of which give the impression of a world born of his memories. Over the Byrds-y twang of opener ‘Corncob’, he struggles to remember the name of a childhood friend he used to hang out with. The more he tries to live in the past, the more he recalls his age. A more dramatic songwriter might explore that dissonance further, but Courtney never digs that deep. Even when he sings about ghosts in the walls on “Sailboats,” it sounds like a different joke.
Courtney’s airy, honeyed harmonies make the record go down with ease, but Magical Characters may be Courtney’s first album to make mistakes on the side of being too carefree. He’s always kept his lyrics simple, but here he falls back on so many underdeveloped “head/bed”, “sound/round” rhyme patterns that his prose often feels like a first draft that he never got around to getting tighter. Maybe he made a point by keeping his lyrics so clear. There are albums that come from a burning need to create and express, and there are albums that exist simply because the artist had the free time and inclination to create them. Magical Characters never pretends to be anything but the latter.
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