Christine Werthman, managing editor, says:
I didn’t like Best Coast‘s debut album, or at least, not at first. My biggest problem with it was that I couldn’t tell if Bethany Cosentino was being serious. Not knowing whether Cosentino was honestly professing, in a borderline whine, that she wished she had a boyfriend or whether she was just toying with old-school girl-group sentiments irritated me. I needed to know whether Cosentino was a pushover or just being playful, and I felt like I got my answer when I saw them live: There was no way that the tatted Cosentino and the shaggy-haired, misplaced-death-metal-guitarist Bobb Bruno were not singing these songs a little tongue-in-cheek.
Another album of fuzzy guitar songs with choruses built around the song titles would’ve made the band seem lazy. So instead, they opted to clean up rather than get scuzzier on The Only Place. The higher fidelity allows you to notice the strength of Cosentino’s voice, but it’s also made it impossible to ignore the lyrics, most of which focus on the trials and tribulations of fame and dealing with haters. And sometimes relationships. If I initially thought “I wish he was my boyfriend/I’d love him till the very end” was a pathetic line from the debut, it redeemed itself by coming off as sarcastic. The problem with The Only Place is that there’s no joke in the bad lyrics. The opener and title track is fun, beachy, California is great, etc. But the relationship songs are now saggy and sappy. The dirty bursts of surf pop have been replaced with over-thought, meandering songs whose cleanliness has rubbed out the band’s character. There aren’t even any references to Snacks the cat.
But I could still find something to like if not for the interjection of Cosentino’s woe-is-me act. “And when I go out, I don’t feel anything/I just keep on spending my money/One day it will be gone/And then I’ll have to write another song,” she laments on “Last Year.” And then on “How They Want Me To Be,” she’s coping with friends who “stick up their noses” and “ask [her] where [her] money is and where does it go once [she’s] spent it.” I get that Cosentino’s life has undeniably changed in the last couple of years and that she is probably catching flack from her old stoner buddies. But the genuineness of her words is what kills it for me. There’s no ambiguity here. This time I can tell she’s being serious–and I wish she were kidding.
Dan Jackson, assistant editor, says:
I can see where you’re coming from, Christine, but I think you’re misreading Cosentino’s intent. I had a similarly contentious and ambivalent relationship with Best Coast’s debut album as well, but I ultimately came around on the record for an entirely different reason: I think Bethany Cosentino is dead serious. Or, at least, as serious as you can be when you talk about weed all the time, and, if Currensy has taught me anything, it’s that talking about weed is a serious business. Once you scrape away all the hype and soul-sucking gimmickry surrounding Cosentino’s exhausting online persona–and it’s tough, just ask the Snacks The Cat twitter account–what you’re left with are some intermittently catchy and occasionally wonderful songs that may not be lyrically complex, but are deeply felt.
While I’m no Best Coast superfan, I’m a little uncomfortable with the conversational shift occurring around this new album. The narrative that seems to be emerging is that because Cosentino teamed up with John Brion (who in most reviews is cast as this weird magician with a penchant for “transforming” young female artists, and not just an incredibly gifted studio producer) and cleaned up her songs, adding a country twang without bothering to similarly class up her lyrics, besides offering up some darker subject matter. The thing is Crazy For You had a dark underbelly as well; my favorite track on that album has always been the aching, country-tinged “Our Deal,” a heart-breaking ode to passive-aggressive behavior. On it Cosentino sings, “I wish you would tell me how you really feel/But you’ll never tell me cause that’s not our deal.” It’s a startling portrait of mutually-assured-friends-with-benefits-destruction, and I don’t think there’s anything jokey, winking or ironic about it. The lines you cite from the new album, especially the ones about money (one of the most unremarked upon and unexplored topics in indie rock) are just as direct and forthcoming, though I guess I can’t fault you for finding that irritating. It’s a tough question: When are simple lyrics just dumb?
There’s this great Robert Christgau review of Elvis Costello’s 1979 album Armed Forces where Christgau writes, “This ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person.” Not to compare Cosentino to Costello (slow your roll, hypothetical Costello-defending comment section trolls!) but I do think Christgau offers a helpful way to think about lyrics. A band like Japandroids rarely gets faulted for writing broad, anthemic lyrics, so why do people expect some sort of thesaurus update from Cosentino? When she sings, “My mom was right, I don’t wanna die, I wanna live my life,” those phrases stick with me because they’re so basic and almost primal. Sure, she’s not Neko Case, Joni Mitchell, John Darnielle or Currensy, but she has a distinct, thoroughly modern worldview that The Only Place articulates in clear, concise terms. She doesn’t wanna be the way you want her to be, and that’s fine with me.