Martin Courtney wrote the lyrics to “Half a Human” in a different world. The song, long a staple of Real Estate’s live sets, is about the alienation of traveling from town to town, wandering overpasses and McDonald’s parking lots, then returning home to the exact same landscape. “I say in the song that it could be anywhere,” Courtney says. “We’ll play a show, drive half an hour out of town to stay in a cheaper hotel, and you’re just walking down some road that isn’t meant for pedestrians. [In this case] I’m actually specifically describing this place close to where I live.” Now, with touring not an option, and a pervasive sense of formless uncertainty dominating our days, Courtney’s exploration of feeling not quite connected to the world you inhabit feels not only prescient, but uniquely situated to address a moment that no one could have expected. This liminal emotional landscape is something that Courtney and the rest of Real Estate have long been perfecting—drawing out suburban ennui into a blurry mix of beautiful nostalgia and distant pain—but across the six songs that make up the Half a Human EP, they take this exploration even further.
The architecture of each of the songs on Half a Human was constructed during sessions for The Main Thing, but came to life when Courtney, along with bassist and vocalist Alex Bleeker, keyboardist Matt Kallman, and guitarist Julian Lynch began trading additional parts back and forth remotely, creating an intricate collection of songs that act as a sort of thesis statement for the band going forward. “My approach to working on parts for Real Estate had come to center around the live experience,” says Lynch. “How my guitar sounded in a room in relation to the other instruments in the band…it’s definitely a different way to work on music, especially for this band.” For Courtney, this sense of exploration was part of a desire to take stock of the success of the band and the uncertainty of the future. “Life keeps changing and additional responsibilities and stresses keep being added, but this band is still here,” he says. “When I was writing a lot of these songs for The Main Thing and Half a Human, I was feeling a little weird about being in a band. Like, ‘how is this still a thing?’ I was feeling silly about it and then coming around to it at the same time. This is what we’re good at and it’s what we love to do and want to keep doing. I don’t want to do anything else.”
Though Half a Human is a relatively short EP, it cements the band as indie rock lifers. Their songs still tackle the same thorny subjects of aging and connection and loss of innocence, but the way they’re approaching those subjects is a reflection of the people they’ve grown into since the release of their self-titled album in 2009. You can hear this on “D+,” a track written and sung by Bleeker. The song is loosely about the current state of America, but as with all Real Estate songs, the focus is on the smaller moments. It’s less about what it all means, and more about excavating the complicated emotional moments that come from existing in the world. In an evocative line that seems to recall witnessing the aftermath of 9/11 from the band’s native New Jersey, Bleeker sings “Never forget smoking two cigarettes on the outskirts of town, peeking over.” “It feels really bad and is scary and unsettling,” he says of the subject matter of the song. “But it’s also a reminder that the universal whole is also indifferent to our trifling feelings at the moment.”
Elsewhere, the lush “In the Garden,” which features gorgeous guitar and keyboard interplay between Lynch and Kallman, is a natural bridge between songs like The Main Thing’s Sylvan Esso-featuring “Paper Cup” and the band’s future. Casually devastating lines like “I should have learned by now, things don’t always work out, but I’m fortunate enough to remain naive,” are reflections on the push-and-pull of making art in a rapidly mutating world. Half a Human is about a lot of things, but at its core it’s asking a very important universal question: what does it mean to make art in America while holding on to your roots and pushing yourself into exciting new places?