Bethany Cosentino isn’t stupid. In picking a collaborator for her second album, the Best Coast leader has realized that the words “produced by Jon Brion” are pretty much pure sophomore-LP gold. Brion isn’t a flashy or even a fussy musician, but he’s ascended to music-dork deity status largely because his crystalline ear and his talents for highlighting other people’s work are very, very rare things. Brion’s film scores don’t demand attention the same way, say, Hans Zimmer’s do, but they’ve been essential in communicating the emotional tone of some very, very good movies. And when you stop and think about what he did for Kanye West on Late Registration, or for Fiona Apple on When The Pawn, it’s just staggering. He took these two wildly ambitious, bursting-with-potential artists and gently nudged them toward making some of their best work, fleshing their ideas out with delicate orchestral touches and synthetic blips in all the exact right places. Now: Cosentino isn’t a furiously ambitious artist, at least in the same way that West and Apple are. Her first album Crazy For You succeeded for some of the same reasons that it felt limited. It was pure indie-pop comfort food, songs about heartbreak and longing sung expertly and rendered in elemental, near-amateurish broad strokes. So the pairing of Cosentino and Brion is a strange, interesting one, but they make it work on The Only Place.
When the news first came down that Brion would produce a Best Coast album, I allowed myself to imagine Cosentino’s voice smeared with strings and marimba-bubbles, but that’s not what we get here. Brion, of course, knows what he’s doing, and he knows that Best Coast’s songs aren’t complicated things that demand complicated arrangements. Brion’s fingerprints are all over The Only Place, but they’re subtle; they don’t leave smudges. And Cosentino’s songwriting hasn’t made any huge leaps, in any direction, since Crazy For You. I think The Only Place is a better album than Crazy For You, but it’s not a big overhaul. The differences between the two are pretty much the same as the differences between a 2009 Camry and a 2012 one: Just a few tweaks and improvements, a slightly sleeker design, a couple more knobs on the dashboard to play around with, a better gas mileage. It’s basically the same car; it just feels a bit better to drive.
Talking about the album, Cosentino has evoked both emo and old-school country, and she’s not wrong about either of them. It’s emo in the way that Best Coast has been emo since she dropped her first 7″; she seems to exist in some permanent state of languid heartache, even when she’s singing about being happy. But the country influence is deeper and stronger. This time out, she’s slowed most of the tempos a bit, dialing back the Blink-182-style sugar-punk dynamics that her homey Wavves doubled down on with King Of The Beach. That’s a good move, since it gives her voice more room to breathe, and her voice really is a spectacular thing. Throughout The Only Place, she sounds a bit like Neko Case’s bratty younger cousin, stretching out every vowel into an exquisite sigh. And Brion layers all the instruments just so. Crazy For You could sound a bit turgid and monochromatic, and that’s never a concern here. Most of the songs are easy, loping midtempo jangles, and you can hear Brion at work in the bell-clear tremolo guitars or the aqueous xylophones that sometimes show up deep in the mix. But nothing is fighting for your attention, and the album is content to fade into a pleasant background haze.
Lyrically, though, it’s a bit of a bum-out to hear Cosentino still stuck on some dude on nearly every song. The album opens with maybe the most evocative lyric she’s ever written: “We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair / When we’re bored, we like to sit around, sit around and stare.” A few seconds later, though, she’s mooning, “We have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please.” And there’s a codependent romantic desperation running through most of these lyrics — not fun to hear from a young woman who seems to have her shit so completely together in so many other ways. Those feelings, of being insecure of your lover’s constant attention, may be universal ones, but if music had a Bechdel Test, this album would fail it utterly. “Last Year” is about how wracked romantic need turns into numbness once the breakup happens. On “No One Like You,” she begs, “If I pack up my things and leave, can I still be the queen to your king?” The title of “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To” is all you really need to know.
So “How They Want Me To Be” emerges as both the least queasy song on the album and the best one, in just about every sense. Musically, it’s like something Buddy Holly might record if you locked him in a room with a six-foot gravity bong and some really comfortable throw pillows and then let him out after five years, its oldies-radio sounds reduced to pure float. And lyrically, it starts out with Cosentino singing about something else, about wanting your friends and your family to leave you alone and stop questioning your decisions. When it turns into a love song halfway through, it still works, since it’s really a song about how relationships work best when the two halves are helping each other to be the people they want to be, identifying themselves against the world around them if they have to. It’s a sentiment way more sophisticated and layered than just about anything else on the album, and it also rings truer. I’d love to hear Cosentino go further down that road next time around. But even if she doesn’t, The Only Place shows that she’s only getting better at making very, very pretty sounds.
The Only Place is out 5/15 on Mexican Summer.