The Only Place has all the signifiers of the "mature" second record. Following Best Coast's break-out debut, 2010's Crazy For You, the band's main woman Bethany Cosentino dropped the lo-fi crunch of that record for a buffed-up and shining fidelity. If Crazy For You wanted to sound like it came through a transistor radio hung from a beach chair, The Only Place wants to ring clarion clear out from Laurel Canyon. With this clearer sound, there are other changes to note. There are no songs about cats. No songs about getting high. There's even no use of the word "boyfriend." Cosentino seems eager to move past the youthful charm of that first record and do something different, something a bit more refined, though no less bubble-gum poppy and beach-party fun.
Of course, not all of this change is apparent on the opening title track, a joyful ode to lazing away your life on the California coast. It's carefree and totally in line with the first record, even if it rides on a new SoCal twang. From there, Cosentino delves into darker territory, mostly about a "you" she's missing, and seems to attempt a deeper gravitas with these tales of heartache. There's no wishing "you were my boyfriend" here. There's sleepless nights, crying. If that's more refinement than change, the best parts of The Only Place actually come when Cosentino strikes ground she couldn't on her first record regarding her artistic breakout. "Last Year" recounts a whirlwind of success ("What a day this year has been") with a fitting trudge. "How They Want Me To Be" talks about seeing this "crazy world." In these moments, she seems genuinely appreciative but uneasy, still worrying over money she's pissing away, still unsure of her next move.
Those moments aside, though, this is an album full of relationship songs, and those relationships are usually broken. If the clear production of these songs points out just how powerful Cosentino's voice is -- and it is fantastic all the way through here, booming and tuneful all the time -- it also points out a lack. These songs, though they have an echoed guitar here or a nice accent there, aren't any more complex than the garage pop of Crazy For You. Which would be fine on its own, to see her trade one simple charm for another.
The problem is that, having left behind cats and "boyfriends" and getting drunk or high (at one point she claims to "kick [her] habits out the front door"), she seems to struggle with what else to say. The Only Place, with wandering songs like "Last Year" and "How They Want Me To Be" and "Better Girl," posits itself as an album of self-exploration. Except that it doesn't seem to really explore. That "crazy world" Cosentino has seen is exactly what she turns her back on. Though she complains, on "How They Want Me To Be," about her friends or her mom nagging her, trying to fit her into some box (though which one we're never told), her solution isn't to find a new path, it's simple to declare "I want you," changing the subject once again to romance. On "No One Like You" she wants nothing more than to be "the 'queen' to your 'king'." Rather than finding any meaning for herself in these songs, Cosentino's narrative persona defines herself by who she's with. A beacon of feminist power, The Only Place is not.
And maybe it doesn't need to be that, which is fine. Cosentino is perfectly capable of playing the victimized female card, even if it feels antiquated and (usually) unconvincing here. The real problem is that, with no clear definition of what she's searching for, The Only Place comes off as aimless and sometimes whiny. The blue-light torch number "What They Want Me To Be" could be a sultry mid-record highlight, but instead gets bogged down in its own griping. We don't know what her mother wants only that she's asking questions, and her friends seem to only worry about what she's doing with her money. Other than that, there's no details for us to latch onto, so when she claims they want her to be what she's not, it comes across as self-important egoism more than a genuine concern.
Not only that, but with so much focus on the "you," who is a romantic paradigm for equally obscure reasons, there's no voice on The Only Place that seems to know what it wants to be, and lacks the motivation to do anthing else than pine over what it doesn't have. On closer "Up All Night," over a woozy beat, Cosentino admits she and her beau are "way too lazy to make it work." In doing so, she inadvertently admits the album's key shortcoming: there's nothing at stake here. If the only thing stopping love is motivation well, then, get motivated. For all its lush production and shine, the slacker attitude pokes its head to the surface, but without the stoned charm of Crazy For You. As a result, The Only Place only pretends at maturity. It's a kid trying on their parents clothes. There's a bit more care taken with the music, more mid-tempo tracks to make space for Cosentino's voice, more clarity to focus on what she's saying, what she's feeling. But in the end The Only Place doesn't say or feel much, which would be fine if it didn't sound like it was trying so hard to say or feel a lot. It's a perfect summer record, a sunburst of bright hooks, but growing up and taking yourself too seriously aren't the same thing. And despite its carefree veneer, The Only Place still aims for the former only to hit the latter dead on.
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