Bethany Cosentino chose the name Best Coast in her early 20s, freshly appreciative of the California sun after a brief, wintery stint in New York. Her first album with bandmate Bobb Bruno introduced her as a lovelorn stoner who sang about boys, California, weed, and her late cat, Snacks (please, a moment for Snacks), over Bruno’s fuzzy take on Phil Spector. But long enough into an artist’s career, personas can become cages. Cosentino was tired of being, as she put it on 2020’s Always Tomorrow, the “lazy, crazy baby”—Best Coast had grown musically from the easy three-chord melodies and anodyne harmonies of their first album, but their image was stuck in 2009.

For her first record under her own name, Cosentino returned to the music of her childhood: Bonnie Raitt (who gets a shout-out on “Outta Time”), Linda Rondstadt, and Indigo Girls. She recruited producer Butch Walker, who has helmed radio-friendly pop for everyone from Weezer to Taylor Swift, to help her realize her visions of Americana, and left the comforts of Los Angeles for his studio in Nashville. The approach is reminiscent of Best Coast’s second album, The Only Place, where they partnered with Jon Brion to fill in the gaps in their sound. Walker’s production builds from the blues rock of Always Tomorrow with a bevy of percussive elements and glimmering guitars. It’s the brightest and catchiest she’s ever sounded—if only her lyrics could rise to the occasion.

Even before she decided to embark on a solo career, Cosentino’s writing had started to veer from sunny run-on sentences about West Coast supremacy to weightier topics: depression, isolation, sobriety. “I guess this is what they mean when they say people can change,” she sang about her own self-actualization on her last album as Best Coast. To Cosentino, growing older is a process of trading hedonism for disillusionment, or trying to find acceptance somewhere in between. That ennui is still present—“If nothing’s guaranteed/Then what’s the point of doing anything?” she muses on “For a Moment”—but her existential quandaries are almost always met with rote solutions: a kiss that can silence anxiety, if only fleetingly.

Hackneyed lyrics seem to be part of a larger strategy: “I tried really hard with this record to leave certain things so that they could be a little bit more universally relatable,” Cosentino said. But the resulting songs are so broadly written that they become meaningless. “Everything’s insane,” she sings on the Train homage “Calling on Angels”; on “My Own City,” she gestures at some broader authority—“They say relax, gotta stay on track”— without hinting at who “they” might be. “Easy,” a piano-driven love ballad, makes the most obvious choice at every turn: “It’s always easy,” she sings. “I hate to sound cliché and cheesy.”

Natural Disaster’s title track reads like a global warming update on the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long”: “This is the hottest summer I can ever remember/‘Cause the world is on fire,” she belts on the chorus. But rather than use those anxieties as an axis for contemplation or change, Cosentino settles on nihilism: “Hey, if we’re all dying, then what does it matter?” Cosentino has said the song was “inspired by the energy of 2020, when there was crazy political unrest and people were dying in massive amounts,” but it’s hard to hear that fervor as she sings, unvaryingly upbeat, about the world ending. The chorus’s central phrase— “We’re a natural disaster”—attempts to link the destruction of the planet with the messy problems of growing up, but dismisses the unique struggles of the two in the process.

Cosentino’s writing about more personal changes doesn’t fare any better. “It’s Fine,” a warm ode to taking the high road, stumbles when Cosentino sings “I am evolved,” on the closest thing the album ever gets to a bridge. The grammatical choices —“am” instead of “have”—come off more like self-help gibberish than a declaration of self-improvement. When we get to the chorus, an airy reiteration that “it’s fine” (what rhymes with “it’s fine?” Well, “it’s not fine,” of course!), her stratospheric belting feels unearned by the flimsy build-up. Cosentino’s voice—a robust, rich tone that made her a perfect fit for the National Anthem at Dodgers stadium—is unwavering throughout most of the album. She sounds just as effusive singing about global warming on “Natural Disaster” as she does singing about fleeting love on “For a Moment”—and stretches the 12-song album to feel twice its length.

Elsewhere, songs sound like Linda Rondstadt mad libs: “I was born in the sign of water/But that don’t mean I can save us now,” she sings on “Hope You’re Happy Now.” Her couplets beg you not to think too deeply about them: “It’s a journey/And I think I’ll stick around,” she sings on “It’s a Journey.” Consentino often grabs for the same phrases over and over again; she uses some version of “the sky is falling” across multiple songs. These missteps might be growing pains: While it might have been straightforward to rhyme “baby” and “maybe” in a sendup to the Ronettes, putting her own spin on the heart wrenching power of country legends is a taller order.

When Consentino slows down and strips her voice back to its barest parts, though, a soft vision of pop folk comes into clearer view: “A Single Day” opens with just guitar and vocals, in medias res, as she’s “thinking a lot about how it’s all gonna disappear.” As the instrumentation builds slowly—a guiro here, a banjo there—she talks about singing the Mamas & the Papas in her car as she plans her escape. It’s a more subtle approach to songwriting than she takes on the rest of the album, and the chorus feels properly explosive as a result: “If the whole thing is going out and ending like they say/ Well we better live a million lifetimes in a single day,” she sings, her voice taking on a miasmatic quality as she stretches the last word of each line. Consentino sounds strongest when she gives herself permission to veer from her influences and find her own voice.

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Bethany Cosentino: Natural Disaster