Two years ago, Bethany Cosentino couldn’t stop singing about her boyfriend. She spinned tales of being alone, mending her broken, obsessed heart, and fighting a hunger for someone that just didn’t want to be there. Throughout 12 summer-ready anthems, she blended youthful melancholia with the afternoon glare of a sun that refused to quit. Each track sounded stripped from the bedroom, as if they were culled from melted demos left on the windowsill of a room that’s seen too many wake and bakes. That’s what made Best Coast’s Crazy for You so invigorating; every listen opened a door into Cosentino’s heart. Lyrically it couldn’t have been more exiguous, but it worked because it felt so real.
But now it’s 2012 and Cosentino’s changed. She’s a little older, she’s met some fine folks (including producer Jon Brion), and she’s seen the world two or three times over. To say she’s just the hazy girl dreaming about the cool boy who got away would be an outright lie. Her universe no longer consists of a bedroom, a spliff, and a lazy cat that loves Seinfeld. Instead, the mythos has lost its curtain, having been debunked through countless tweets, promotions, or invasive Q&A’s. Because of this, she’s not the girl-next-door-who-comes-out-for-the-mail-once-in-awhile, she’s an indie rock sensation, a star plastered on venue walls. Maybe that’s going off on a limb, but hell, she does own her own fashion line.
She’s also well-traveled, and not that she wasn’t before, but that never came across in her music beforehand. Now, with The Only Place, her highly anticipated sophomore effort, Cosentino’s pining less for the boy, but really, that bedroom she once dwelled in. Similar to her debut, she wastes little time screaming these ideas aloud, and on the punchy opening track “The Only Place”, she states, “We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair,” only to ask rhetorically, “Why would you live anywhere else?” The album’s next ten tracks go on to answer that question again and again.
Or, they attempt to sell you on the idea that Cosentino has changed and grown up. ”I used to wake up in the morning and reach for the bottle and glass,” she laments on “Last Year”, and quickly after on the aptly titled “My Life”, she preaches, “My mom was right, I don’t want to die, I want to live my life.” On the surface, they’re familiar Best Coast-sounding ditties, but there’s something so transparent about them, as if they’re trying too hard to insist upon this personal growth. Granted, this is a staple tenet of any sophomore album; all too often an artist oversells their own expected maturity. Cosentino doesn’t do that, per se, but she also doesn’t leave her mask up much.
Lyrically, The Only Place is as cyclical as Crazy for You, in that Cosentino dwells upon the same themes and gripes again and again. It worked back in 2010 because the lyrics sounded raw, sung from little afterthoughts etched in the back of crumpled receipts, or even better, on the spot. This time around they feel calculated and as a result repetitive. The reason for that, however, goes to its production. With a high-profile name as Jon Brion behind the controls – a guy whose resume includes Fiona Apple, Kanye West, and of Montreal – Cosentino lacks the guarded scruff of the original recordings. It’s still slightly scratchy, but overall it’s far more polished and framed than anything the band’s ever put to record.
That’s not altogether a bad thing. One plus side to having a guy like Brion around is that he’s going to make your instruments sound good, and the band’s never sounded better. For an act that used to sound like sandy 45s on distortion, they’ve now expanded their sound to allow for things to feel lush or, hell, even orchestral. Tracks like “How They Want Me to Be”, “Dreaming My Life Away”, or album closer “Up All Night” work off of atypical Best Coast skeletons, but they’re fleshed out with layers of harmonies, a dollup of simplistic guitar lines, and what sounds like a ghostly xylophone – the latter track even contains strings. No telling what went on in the recording studio, but judging from the production, Brion’s flicked on some switches that weren’t an option two years back.
Still, that shine doesn’t help Cosentino, and it’s actually a detriment to her style. On the tracks that retreat to their original sound – specifically, “Why I Cry”, “Better Girl”, or “Let’s Go Home” – the poppy hooks tire and the lyrics ring expected. To their credit, they sound like Best Coast and they’re catchy songs, but they don’t tug at anything. They sell themes and ideas that have already been explored and, what’s worse, they don’t feel like they’re coming from anywhere. Actually, it’s not even that they sound too polished; it’s more along the lines that they sound too assured, as if Cosentino herself even knows she’s circled these topics once before. How does one grapple sincerity from that?
They have to dig deeper. On album highlight ”Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”, Cosentino asks, “When did my life stop being so fun?” Such scathing insight threads into her most personal moment on The Only Place, as she cracks open the hotel door to let us in on her current disposition. She’s weary, homesick, and no longer the charming, anti-surfer girl. In a little over three minutes, the troubled songwriter brings everyone up to speed by digging deep into her personal fears (“I wish I could care about someone/The way I used to, when will this be done”) and handing out polaroids of miserable, lonely nights (“I’m always crying on the phone/Because I know that I’ll end up alone”). It’s the album’s crux, everything Cosentino is trying to paddle away from, and yet there’s something so goddamn beautiful about it. She’s a wreck and she’s out of her element, but she’s flesh and blood, and that’s something to love about her. It’s just a shame there’s not enough of it here.
Essential Tracks: “The Only Place”, “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”
Feature artwork by Mike Zell.