Real Estate: "Talking Backwards"

from Atlas (Domino; 2014)

By Robin Smith | 10 February 2014

“Talking Backwards” sounds like Real Estate never went away. More and more, I feel that is the sentiment chill, plainspoken indie bands want you to hear in their music. Kurt Vile as good as said so last year, mumbling “I don’t know why I ever go away” as he walked us through eleven why-worry-just-be ruminations that hopefully exist in some philosophy/self-help hybrid textbook coming to you soon. Meanwhile Best Coast made her new mini-album, Fade Away, sound exactly like Crazy For You (2010), reverting to phase one of her plaintive garage rock and blowing a new wisp of lovelorn lyrics through the wind (“I don’t know how to tell you I love you,” just the same but brand new); Deerhunter made a record of myriad classic rock that made you think, well, yeah, Deerhunter; the Men threw out yet another countrified record in their long game towards eventually cracking the dad noise genre; and, you know, Mark Kozelek did something? I assume.

Good for him, though; I get it. Sometimes the best feeling is the most reassuring one, and the best song the one that reflects most exactly an artist’s entire oeuvre, not only as a culmination, but as an absorption of their sound. In the case of “Talking Backwards,” it sounds like Real Estate have stayed the same this whole time, because they left us hanging onto their sound. Days (2011) ended on the kind of upswing I never wanted to stop, and it sounds like that because they didn’t want it to either. Closer “All the Same” slowed and slowed and slowed, the band suspending their guitars in the air, rewinding the melodies. Call it sunshine stalling: like Kurt Vile, like Best Coast, like Robert fucking Pollard, Real Estate didn’t want to go away.

“All the Same” is a triumphantly chill song. It would play gorgeously on the stage, especially instantiated as the long, curtain-calling closer it was designed to be. It solves problems super-vaguely, saying “oh what a shame” with indifference, and then shrugging “it’s alright, it’s okay” until all that’s left in your mind are comforting synonyms. You can hum along with them because Martin Courtney sounds decidedly anonymous, and because the guitar riffs, tracing his voice by rote, make your voice sound perfect too. The day becomes the night, the night melts into the day; essentially, “All the Same” says the sun is always up, but just in case it isn’t, you’re never alone.
There’s no conflict on “All the Same”; any acknowledged problem is its own ray of light. It would’ve made a great finale for Real Estate, but I actually love “Talking Backwards,” its follow-up, for its turbulent ironies. The band return the same as ever, sharing a sigh of relief with their audience, but they also sound unsure of themselves, tied in knots they can only unravel in song. For Real Estate, a lyric like “Am I making any sense at all?” is as funny as it is sad. It’s like Best Coast singing “I don’t know how to tell you I care” over a few tired chords—her problem is solved then and there. Days was expressed as clearly. Courtney said all of the simple things you might be afraid to say day-to-day, and when nothing needed to be said at all, he let it be—“Kinder Blumen” is an indie rock instrumental for elevators, but also an homage to shutting up. On “Talking Backwards,” Courtney is in fine confessional form, spreading himself candidly across three minutes of cosy guitar duets and modest rhythms. You can actually hear Courtney disambiguating himself, adjusting his plain old woe (“We’re not getting any closer”) with explanations (“We’re too many miles away”). The song is about a phone call between two lovers, and you feel like Courtney, the king of being honest with himself, is the only person in the world who could make that conversation comfortable.

And yet “Talking Backwards” is wracked with doubt. It’s one of those songs that blurs what the artist implies and what the listener infers. There’s more pain in it than the band’s usual sunburnt wistfulness, but it’s ultimately an elating listen. Between its first chorus and second verse it hits a dramatic snag, the two bound in the way that most Real Estate songs are (by good faith and interlocking guitar arrangements) but coming apart when Courtney breaks out with a remorseful hum. From there the song only makes its disconnect more obviously felt; the rhythm guitar eventually cuts out on the song’s main refrain, pushing its simplicity into the light: “I might as well be talking backwards.”

The music video for “Talking Backwards” makes me feel like everything I just said is bullshit, though—that between tour and studio time, Real Estate are feelin’ fine, slacking hard, and making intricate music that just comes natural. The song is one of their catchiest, and also one of their warmest; they’re still the indie rock equivalent of a bed you don’t want to leave, and I’m cool with that. But hearing “Talking Backwards” isn’t a promise that everything’s the same on their part, nor is it a pure joy to behold for me. If Atlas is anything like it, there’ll be something lurking behind Real Estate’s melodies and never-ending good company.