Best Coast’s sophomore album, The Only Place, is a more mature effort from the California nostalgia-pop duo, but it would almost have to be. On the group’s 2010 debut, Crazy For You, beach brat Bethany Cosentino, then in her early 20s but writing much younger, sang of wasted days spent pining for boys and smoking pot. And save for one stupefying lyric about wishing her cat could talk—a line that her detractors will surely never let her live down—that was just about all she sang about, on song after song. Calling Crazy For You a song cycle about heartache, as some critics charitably described it, was like praising The Tenth Garfield Treasury as a nuanced character study of a gluttonous cat. Even at just over a half hour, it was exhaustingly repetitive, offering only the most minor variations on its very basic theme.
“I don’t think lyrics need to be deep,” Cosentino told Pitchfork in a 2010 interview. “Just write whatever comes out of you. You don’t need to find intense meaning in everything.” There’s merit to that approach, of course. Vague lyrics let listeners project their own experiences onto a song, after all, and lyrical depth was never going to be one of Best Coast’s selling points anyway. Listeners took to the band for Cosentino’s blissful, summery melodies, and on that front, Crazy For You delivered. Audiences clearly responded to the album; it became the highest-charting release (which is to say, the only charting release) in the history of Best Coast’s label, Mexican Summer. Still, the singer admitted she was unprepared for the drubbings she took in some circles, and she wears those bruises on The Only Place. “You gotta keep me away from what they say about me,” she sings on “Better Girl.”
The “you” on the receiving end of that plea—readers of more gossip-minded indie blogs can only assume—is Wavves’ Nathan Williams, Cosentino’s boyfriend and partner in Internet celebrity. The couple’s relationship lent an air of tabloid voyeurism to Best Coast’s debut, though it seemed like a missed opportunity that the absentee love objects of Cosentino’s songs were so much less interesting than her real-life boyfriend, a temperamental misanthrope who picked up a reputation for spectacular onstage breakdowns and a sharp tongue. After guitar wizard Marnie Stern offhandedly insulted Best Coast in an interview, dismissing Cosentino’s aloof songwriting as insincere, Williams charged to his girlfriend’s defense, calling Stern an “old desperate bitch.” The couple’s us-against-the-haters solidarity helped position them as the Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love of surf-pop (in this analogy, Williams is probably Love), but their very public, live-tweeted relationship helped fuel some of the online scrutiny that haunts Cosentino on her new album.
Williams also figures on another song concerned with reputation, “How They Want Me To Be,” again as a confidant and source of protection from the public eye. He plays presumptive romantic lead on several other tracks, but boys are no longer Cosentino’s sole reason for being on The Only Place. Where on her debut the singer longed to find love, here she’s as preoccupied with finding herself and, more pressingly, pulling herself from a depressed spiral of reckless spending and solitary drinking. “I don’t know how I feel / I’m all over the place / and when I go out, I don’t feel anything,” she frets on “Last Year.” On “Why I Cry,” she looks to her future and sees nothing. “Don’t know why I even care,” she sings. “Walk around in a haze / seems to be the way I spend my days / I’m stuck in the grey.” Sylvia Plath she’s not, but Cosentino isn’t singing about weed and cats any more. She may have taken Stern’s songwriting critiques to heart, because for the first time, her melancholy has real stakes.
If The Only Place is a departure for Cosentino, it’s an even bigger one for Jon Brion, the studio virtuoso renowned for his intricate scores for films including Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and for his credits on Fiona Apple and Kanye West’s lushest, most sprawling albums. Those credentials make him imminently overqualified to produce a band whose earliest 7-inches were caked in tape hiss, but Brion understands that brevity is key to what Best Coast does. Rather than decorating Cosentino’s songs in off-kilter orchestrations, he strips them down even further, peeling away Crazy For You’s coats of reverb and scaling back most of its multi-tracked harmonies until what’s left is little more than a sturdy rhythm, some pristinely chiming guitars, and Cosentino’s untreated voice, which Brion pushes even further to the front of the mix.
Between her baleful, slower-tempo songwriting and the pronounced twang in her delivery, Cosentino seems more than ever to be channeling a kindred lonely heart who also takes solace in the company of animals, Neko Case. There’s no mistaking the two singers, since Cosentino lacks Case’s load-bearing lung power and, try as she might, she can’t completely erase the last remnants of her pop-punk sneer from her phrasing. But her attempts to carry full songs with her voice are exciting anyway, and the minor breaks and cracks in her otherwise pure coos give ballads like “No One Like You” their human character. Even if she can’t quite conjure Case, she does a pretty good Jenny Lewis.
It’s a testament to how unobtrusive all these tweaks and refinements are that, despite Brion’s de-fuzzed production and Cosentino’s sudden country leanings, The Only Place still feels like its predecessor. It’s a more sophisticated effort, but it doesn’t disown the rudimentary pleasures of Crazy For You. For continuity’s sake, it’s bookended by a pair of songs that feel like remnants from that record: the title track, a sunny jingle about the joys of California, and the closing ballad “Up All Night,” which indulges the syrupy, mock-Phil Spector orchestrations that Brion otherwise tastefully avoids. Some old habits die harder than others, though. The boot-stomping, utterly rollicking “Do You Love Me Like You Used To” could’ve been Cosentino’s finest hour if its lyrics weren’t so remedial. “I’m always crying on the phone,” she wails with convincing might, “because I know that I’ll end up alone.” Cosentino has strengthened her voice and revealed real emotional range. Maybe on album No. 3 she’ll start practicing some new rhyme schemes, too.