After releasing the defining summer album of 2010, what comes next? That’s a question Beth Cosentino might have been asking herself a lot since the release of Best Coast’s adorably scruffy surfpop debut Crazy For You. Part of the reason that album garnered so much affection was its specificity of tone, each track adding a few new details to the portrait of our heroine lazing around on the couch, baked out of her mind, dividing her time between talking to her cat and pining over some jerk-off ex-boyfriend. For all the simplicity of Cosentino’s lyrics and song structure, she captured her own brand of California spirit perfectly. But the fact that Cosentino and stalwart right-hand man Bobb Bruno nailed Best Coast’s sound straight off the bat is both a blessing and a curse. Now that album number two has rolled around in the form of The Only Place, there’s one question on everyone’s lips: what’s changed?
Not very much, you’d be tempted to conclude, listening to the title track that opens the album. All the Best Coast hallmarks are present and correct, from fizzing guitars and an earworm chorus to those characteristically guileless lyrics. “We’ve got the ocean, got the babes/We’ve got the sun, we’ve got the waves”, she gushes of her home state, before earnestly asking “Why would you live anywhere else?” With that kind of logic, it’s hard to disagree. Honestly, if the California Tourism Board doesn’t pick up this pop gem for its advertising, someone in the marketing department needs to get fired.
As it turns out, the familiar energy and sunny disposition of ‘The Only Place’ turns out to be a bit of a red herring. As the album progresses, it settles into a far more deliberate mid-tempo rhythm than we’re used to. It also incorporates a wider range of musical touchstones; it feels like you might find the beefy blues-rock riff on ‘Last Year’ buried deep in the tracklist of a Creedence album, probably on a song about a bayou or somesuch. Tracks like ‘No One Like You’ and ‘My Life’ have the lilting qualities of vintage country pop (and the lovelorn lyrics to boot). ‘Dreaming My Life Away’, with its minor key melodies and spooky glockenspiel excursions, even presents a slinky side to Best Coast, something most fans wouldn’t ever have expected.
The title track’s lyrical cheeriness is also done away with pretty quickly. “I wake up to the morning sun/When did my life stop being so fun?”, Cosentino opens on ‘Do You Love Me Like You Used To’, a couplet that seems like a direct counterbalance to the sun/fun/getting-things-done mentality of ‘The Only Place’. Despite the contradiction, she doesn’t appear to be consciously attempting to pull the rug out from under us. Each song is treated as its own moment, and each moment comes off as genuine and deeply-felt.
Although this move away from Crazy For You’s infectious, bratty energy might be disappointing initially, it makes total sense after a few listens. After all, with Best Coast’s lo-fi pop formula, the “pop” element was always the most important. The duo’s partnership with Kanye West/Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion has brought a new, sumptuous quality to these songs, as well as placing much more emphasis on Cosentino’s vocals. Luckily, her massively improved voice is easily up to the task; whether she’s languidly crooning or punching home a chorus, her range and control is flawless. Just listen to her immaculate performance on ‘How They Want Me To Be’ and try to disagree.
So there are changes aplenty on The Only Place, but where the changes on so many other sophomore albums feel forced and overthought, Best Coast have taken a confident step forward without even seeming to try. An appropriately laid-back triumph.