Album Reviews

Martin Courtney – Magic Sign

(Domino) UK release date: 24 June 2022

A set of subtle musical gems sees Real Estate frontman effortlessly recount the joys of youth

Martin Courtney - Magic Sign Martin Courtney is not a man in a hurry. Nearly seven years after his first solo album, the Real Estate front man drops his second, released as a midsummer soundtrack. In it, he pays homage to teenage road trips, whose one and only objective was to get lost in the New Jersey suburbs. Driving around with only the road in front of them, Courtney and his lightly stoned friends enjoyed the sensation of going off grid, then the mild peril of retracing their steps and getting home. They did this safe in the knowledge that the green ‘magic signs’ of the road would be their guide, a friendly escort home.

Courtney’s music operates along similar lines. It, too, is lightly under the influence, walking in a haze with the carefree gait of someone at ease with themselves and their surroundings. Those surroundings, whether familiar or not, are a source of comfort, with any musical explorations underpinned by the knowledge that getting home will always be possible. This way of working will be familiar to followers of Real Estate, for the ten compositions here speak of companionship and good times for the listener, with guaranteed melodies and harmonies to hum and appreciate.

Take the warm-hearted Shoes, for example, guaranteeing an instant ray of sunshine. As the song progresses, its golden harmonies take you under their wing. “The air is heavy, the sky is blue”, sings Courtney, casting his mind back. “In vacant lots with dusty shoes, we found things to do.” These lyrics are typical of his storytelling talents, the listener placed in the car with him and his friends. “Who’s that kid you hung out with, all the time you were young?” asks the nostalgic opening song Corncob.

Courtney’s ability to create vivid pictures in the course of a three-minute song is what keeps this album compelling, in spite of the nostalgic haze. The temptation to look back is ever-present in the lyrics and also in the music, where Byrdsian harmonies wrap themselves round the ears and jangly guitars chime melodically. There is however enough variety between songs, with compositions like Sailboat prepared to rock out with greater weight.

Courtney also manages not to over-use the rose-tinted spectacles. “I pity who I was”, he sings in Outcome, while Terrestrial questions his very existence. “I tell myself it won’t be long, I tell myself nothing’s wrong”.  The warm outlook proves the trump card, however. Merlin has a particularly beguiling coda, with harmonies that could go round in circles for hours, and the instrumental Mulch has a similar effect, its guitars bending gently like heavy branches in a summer breeze.

There are no alarms, then, for Real Estate fans looking to add Martin Courtney’s second solo album to their collection, nor for someone with a liking for melodic or songwriting coming to his music for the first time. Here is a songwriter effortlessly recounting his joys of youth and getting lost, and in the process finding himself through a set of subtle musical gems.

buy Martin Courtney MP3s or CDs
Spotify Martin Courtney on Spotify

More on Martin Courtney
Martin Courtney – Magic Sign
Martin Courtney – Many Moons