The best pop songs tear us apart. They vacillate between nostalgic yearning and youthful optimism, crushing and lifting us at the same time. On Best Coast’s 2010 debut, “Crazy for You,” Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno took this yearning and combined it with washed out, fuzzy California surf-pop and created one of the most promising musical acts to emerge from Los Angeles in recent years. The music was simple: songs about boys and loneliness, basic pop structures. There was nothing innovative or particularly exciting about “Crazy for You”; instead, Cosentino and Bruno tapped into the complexities of our most basic emotions and unraveled them. It was perfect, in short, because it didn’t try to be.
If “Crazy for You” captured a lovesick haze, Best Coast’s 2012 follow up, “The Only Place,” is a leap into clarity. The album features the polished production of Jon Brion, who has produced albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple and Keane. This clears up the washed-out sound so prevalent on “Crazy for You” and keeps Cosentino’s voice as strong a presence as it always was.
The sophomore slump — that dreaded decrease in quality on a band’s second album — is usually very easy to quantify: bad songwriting, poor lyrics, poor production choices, strained emotions among band members, etc. While “The Only Place” leaps ahead of “Crazy for You,” in its refreshingly clear instrumentation, the static-free directness accentuates Best Coast’s lyrics, their weakest quality.
The opening track, “The Only Place,” is meant to be a celebration of California, of the laidback lifestyle and the natural beauty of the land. Instead, the track evokes touristic jingles.
“We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair,” Cosentino sings. “When we get bored we like to sit around, sit around and stare / At the mountains, at the birds, at the ocean, at the trees / We have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please … Why would you live anywhere else? / Why would you live anywhere else? / We’ve got the ocean, got the babes / Got the sun, we’ve got the waves / This is the only place for me.”
Cosentino’s lyrics ruin what is otherwise an excellent album. Simple lyrics can be brilliant, but in this case, simplicity makes the album hard to identify with. Many of the songs deal with feelings of alienation, and thematically they should work well with Best Coast’s new, clean approach. Instead, the majority alienates listeners, making what could have been the most tender and intimate moments unrelatable. More worrisome, lyrics like these show that Best Coast lacks inspiration.
“The Only Place” has a few redeeming features. Cosentino’s voice is as strong as it was on “Crazy for You,” and the songs are catchy. The ninth track, “Dreaming My Life Away,” features a 1970s AM soft-rock dreamscape that lulls listeners in, and “How They Want Me to Be” is a lyrical bright spot. This track does everything a good pop song should: it stays simple and speaks directly to the listener without any pretense.
“’Cause when I wake up in the morning or the middle of the night,” she sings, “I wonder who’s there, and what they’ve said … But when I wake up in the morning or the middle of the night / I look at you and I know it’s alright / I wake up in the morning or the middle of the night / I look at you and I know it’s alright.”
Although “The Only Place” is weighed down by poor lyrics and uninspired songwriting, it shows that Best Coast is willing to push its musical boundaries, at least in production, and the album shows the they still are able to pull off simple surf-pop goodness.
“You and me / Too good to be / Too true to be / Too dumb to see / Where I live / And where you live / Are not the same / We’re not to blame,” she sings on the closing ballad, “Up All Night.” “It’s too crazy / And far too hard / And way too lazy to make it work / So here I am / I’m still alone / I’m still awake / I’m still afraid.”
Rating: 3 out of 5