Album Review: Martin Courtney – Magic Sign

The Real Estate frontman updates his warm and wistful sound with subtle details

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Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney’s solo debut, Many Moons, came out in 2015 at the height of his band’s success. Atlas, Real Estate’s landmark third album, had been released just a year before to critical acclaim, and Many Moons was like a bonus treat for those still enjoying its warm but bittersweet glow.

In sound, too, Courtney’s first record felt like an extension of Real Estate, though trading in the 12-string Fender for an acoustic and adding some bucolic flute and strings passages dreamed up more of a Byrds-esque, frolicking-in-nature with a glint of psychedelia kind of affair.

On his awaited second solo effort Magic Sign, released on Friday on Domino Records, the sounds that build on Courtney’s songwriting – which in many moments is stripped back to its core – draw more from recent years.

Lead single and album opener ‘Corncob’ would certainly feel at home on Many Moons, with its feathery slide guitar drifting around one of his strongest melodies. But there’s also garage-rock grit on ‘Sailboat’ (his first attempt at “some unlicensed rocking”) or slacker-pop synths a la Mac Demarco on ‘Time To Go’. Sure, these details are understated, but Courtney is an artist who deals in subtle details.

Martin Courtney - Corncob (Official Video)

The balance of nostalgia brought to life with the present speaks to Courtney’s lyrical focus here, which looks to pointers (vacant lots, bikes in 1999, childhood pals with names are on “the tip of your tongue”), or magic signs, to the past. Written during the year of lockdown, mostly late at night while his kids were asleep, Courtney’s comfort in the simplicity of wasted youth is certainly one that many found solace in when time seemed to stretch on indefinitely.

But like those who want to wake up from the slumber of the recent past, Courtney ends Magic Sign with a startling moment of presence: “No we’re not as young as we once were/ But we both know we’ve still got time, for sure”. Though its dreamy haze and twinkle may not be the galvanising splash-in-the-face of its message, on Magic Sign Courtney’s look into the past finds direction to the thrill of what’s to come.