The cul-de-sacs of childhood can constrict a grown-up mind, but Martin Courtney continues to point his concrete-dusted shoes toward the quiet warmth of nostalgia. His discography is the musical inverse of how modern rock bands have handled the topic of suburbia in the past. Oftentimes a group like Arcade Fire, Green Day, or Modest Mouse will have a barbed obsession with suburban malaise. But Courtney’s made a career out of the topic with the airy-but-grounded indie-pop outfit Real Estate, though his relationship with his past is a bit more complicated for him these days as he balances being a musician and a father during a pandemic.
There are front porches, first phone conversations, open fields, and empty living rooms that dot the landscape of Magic Sign, Courtney’s follow-up to his 2015 solo debut. The familiar sites here are handled as places of sanctity, often set in Courtney’s golden hour of youth where his emotions were tracking like a well-used VHS. He strolls through the harsh fluorescent lights of the present and steps down into the basement of his mind again. Opening track “Corncob” is awash in memories as pedal steel floats over Courtney’s acoustic guitar. He tries to remember a kid he used to hang out with, whose name is on the tip of his tongue. He then drifts around in his car looking for something magical that’s just out of reach. It’s a strong scene-setter for an album that can coast by in one moment before jolting you back to bygone days with a sharp turn of phrase or instrumental U-turn.
Further into the record on the humming “Sailboat,” Courtney’s lyrics wilt over the scenery as he lies in bed with the crickets outside assaulting a silent house. He sings that “Ghosts are in the walls / Rarely are they out.” “Time to Go” is a forlorn and lightweight pop strut wherein Courtney details living in the Northeast when the oceans rise and you’ve got a “basement full of brine.” Basements and other parts of a home tend to pop up a lot in the record, including on “Merlin,” which equates the basement of your home as your subconscious mind, which haunts Courtney throughout the release. The country-tinged stroll “Living Rooms” also touches on Courtney’s ritual of passing time late at night in his basement writing songs about a loved one and wondering why he’s preserving such a raw and tender feeling. The loping and nocturnal guitars on the instrumental “Mulch” serve as a peaceful conclusion for the catharsis of that track.
Magic Sign may have some palpable downbeats, but overall hope keeps popping up as the nostalgic piece furnishing the musical house Courtney has built up. This is most apparent on the epic love song “Exit Music,” which shifts from the nighttime scenes in the back half of the album to another sunny afternoon where Courtney joins his wife of over a decade in the low afternoon sun. “Though we’re not as young as we once were / We both know we’ve still got time for sure,” he croons over a refined melody familiar to the Real Estate canon. It’s nice in the Courtney family’s neighborhood—or at least they’ve got time to make it better each day.