For a band that doesn't do bombast or fanfare, Real Estate may be concerned at the level of expectation surrounding Atlas. Their previous record, the wonderful Days, saw them step out of the lo-fi basement of their self-titled debut to wander in the blissful haze of the idealised American suburbs. Its pleasantly ramshackle songs effortlessly conjure up nostalgia, and are compelling just as flicking through a box of yellowing Polaroids found at the back of a wardrobe is irresistible. But settling back into reminiscence like a battered old armchair raises a quandary: do you move on or replicate the memories?
That choice makes Atlas a pressured proposition. It's encapsulated in the title, which can be equally interpreted as being a more worldly document, leaving Days' parochial psych behind, or refers to the struggle of stoically bearing the weight of the world's expectations for more lens-flared memories. From the very first blush, it seems to be business as usual. 'Had To Hear' and its chiming, vapour trail guitars, pattering drums and breaking-wave chorus are vintage Real Estate. The band are happy with cosy beachcombing, thanks, and seem comfortable - and effortlessly capable - making Days mk II. Such is the promise, the casual listener would be perfectly forgiven for thinking it's actually the same record.
That's both compliment and curse though, and signs of strain soon begin to appear. The song's meandering, shoe-scuffing coda feels two minutes too long. 'Past Lives' follows, with a promising tender prod of organ and glimpses of a new jazzy shuffle, but they are washed out by the usual phased guitars that shrug, rather than swoon, back in. 'The Bend' tries to spiral into a full-on psych outro but it sounds tacked on, just an extra track of sonar-bloop guitar as another phase pedal is switched on. Worse, the instrumental 'April's Song' feels like a demo awaiting a vocal session that was never arranged.
The band have asked the impossible of themselves in trying to reconcile moving on with sitting still. It makes them reach uneasy compromises; forcing new ideas they want to adopt onto the dreamy core they remain unable to relinquish and, in doing so, exposes their sound to the law of diminishing returns. Their nostalgia is then given an inconvenient dose of reality, like thinking of a first love but only being able to remember the break-up's hurt.
Still, there are moments of genuine delight and the record gathers itself as it goes on, with the gorgeous crystalline guitars of 'Navigator' and the Harvest era country weepie 'How Might I Live' playing their parts in a stronger second half. It's probably no coincidence that these are both pared back of embellishments and are relatively brief. Then there's lead single 'Talking Backwards'. It may as well be titled 'Looking Backwards' as, in career terms, it's the identical twin sister song to 'It's Real' from Days - plonked three songs in too - but it's the most sinuous and peppy thing they've ever committed to tape (a band so retrospective surely don't use digital). Yet despite it being all chorus there's still something a little gauche and off, like a teacher chatting in the pub with their sixth form class. It could be the dissonance it conjures between the band's signature mellifluous sound, captured at its height, and its lyric, which speaks of an inability to connect with an aim: "the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can't seem to do."
That would be to move on. It leaves Atlas as a record that's mostly about surface. Those surfaces are, it must be said, invariably pleasant. The LP is sympathetically produced - less cluttered than Days without feeling too airy - but the ease that once made for a deliciously languid listen now seeps into being listless, and the band's melodic grip, previously their strong suit, has slipped. This may be as it was written collaboratively on travels, with sessions in Arizona, Madrid, Brooklyn and New Jersey - you can't move on and take stock - and so feels underwritten. If Atlas is a document of anything it's of the touring and studio bubble, whereas previously their records were wracked with the pathos and promise of everyday life. It's a pity they remain slavishly committed to a successful template and too often Atlas feels like a memory of a memory. Whilst there's nothing - repeat, nothing - wrong with the band's core idea, you just wonder how long the goodwill afforded to it can last.