I have to admit I didn't like
or understand Celebrity Skin on first spin. It sounded
so poppy, so bland, so ... un-Courtney. Serves me right for only
listening on the surface, because Hole's new album is secretly
every bit as subversive and ornery as previous, earbleed albums
like Pretty on the Inside and Live Through This.
Courtney Love has learned that honey attracts more flies than
vinegar, and the new disc is nothing if not honey; it fits right
in with her recent Hollywood makeover. Like Courtney herself
these days, Celebrity Skin is pretty on the outside, but
inside, if you really look and listen, it's pretty twisted. And
the candy-coating here is as big a fuck-you as anything else
Love has done.
Love's gradual morphing from
lipstick-smeared kinderwhore to acclaimed movie actress and fashion
plate runs deeper than a mere career move. (She and Madonna get
dissed so hard for going from one persona to another, but I don't
recall Elton John or David Bowie getting slammed for their
transformations -- no, they get praised for their versatility
and innovation. Then again, I don't know why this double standard
even surprises me any more.) No, Love knows that people will
only listen to an attractive woman who plays the game (ever wonder
whether Alanis or Sheryl Crow would have as many fans if they
were overweight and homely and made angry Valerie Solanas-type
statements?). And that's what she gives you on Celebrity Skin,
but one look at the lyrics tells you she's fighting the rules
at the same time she's grudgingly playing by them. Her inner
tension is reflected in the tension between the words and the
Love's gift -- it links her
with her otherwise polar opposite Liz Phair, and also with her
friend Michael Stipe -- is to write obscure lyrics that nevertheless
let you know exactly what's going on in her head. If Live
Through This was her wife-and-mother album, Celebrity
Skin is her widow-and-star album. Fame, drugs, the emptiness
and loneliness of idolatry (of all kinds, and from both points
of view) -- it's all there. Yet this isn't complaint rock or
an "oh, woe is me, fame sucks" album. Love is aiming
for a big concept album, like her beloved Fleetwood Mac's Rumours,
and it's about everything L.A. stands for.
The title track (and first
single) kicks things off aggressively and sets the tone for everything
to follow, though only the next-to-last track, "Playing
Your Song," approaches its bombast. Here as elsewhere, new
bassist Melissa Auf der Maur proves to those of us who haven't
heard her on anything besides "Gold Dust Woman" (off
The Crow: City of Angels disc) that she can make her presence
felt while giving the music a strong spine. She's earned the
right to fill the vacancy left by Kristen Pfaff (who ODed two
months after Kurt Cobain killed himself). Problem: the single
is getting way overplayed on the radio, and I'm beginning to
get slightly sick of it.
After that comes the challenge
for fans of Hole's sound and Love's persona. The second track,
"Awful," is where I started hating the disc upon first
listen. What the fuck is this? The Go-Gos? It sounds completely
summery and shallow, like so much else on the album. At first
I was like, "Oh no, another bland, overproduced letdown
like Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg."
But if you think about it, in this era of emptily angry male-oriented
bands growling about not getting laid and trying to pluck the
pennies off the eyelids of grunge, a pop confection like "Awful"
is more punk these days than something like "Good Sister
Bad Sister." Anyway, the song itself (again, like so much
else on the album) is more cutting than first meets the ear,
with lyrics like "They know how to break all the girls like
you/And they rob the souls of the girls like you."
Three subsequent songs -- "Hit
So Hard," "Malibu," and "Reasons to Be Beautiful"
-- all seem to be about Cobain, but that may just be projecting.
"Hit So Hard" is perhaps not as ironic and snarky as
Love's MTV Unplugged cover of "He Hit Me (And It
Felt Like a Kiss)", but it's dysfunctional enough; in this
case, Love appears to be remembering the mutually destructive,
codependent relationship she and Cobain had. "Malibu"
is another song you can picture Belinda Carlisle crooning, which
makes it all the more weird and funny that it's Courtney Love
singing it. "Reasons to Be Beautiful" sounds a bit
more like old-school Hole -- maybe Love was nervous that the
fans would rip the disc out of the player if there were one more
arrogantly un-Hole song, so this one seems intended to reassure
those who think every Hole song should be "Miss World."
It's another Kurt eulogy, with suicidal overtones.
Billy Corgan co-wrote five
of the twelve songs on Celebrity Skin, and the minimalist
"Dying," the album's sixth track, is the most obviously
Corganesque. Love did a little dabbling in the mainstream to
study its habits, and this song -- in which I can hear hints
of Sarah MacLachlan and 10,000 Maniacs -- reflects it. You can
also hear Corgan's influence on the next two songs -- the heroin
chiller "Use Once and Destroy" and the acoustic "Northern
Star," written by Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson -- though
Corgan didn't actually collaborate on them.
"Northern Star" shows
another possible Love influence: Tom Verlaine, the lead singer
of the acclaimed '70s band Television, who, like Love, had a
hard nasal voice but knew how to work it to suggest painful yearning,
especially on the classic "Marquee Moon" from the album
of the same name. This is the first time I've heard Love and
thought of Verlaine, so I presume she's either taken a page from
him or just emulated him accidentally. One group Love definitely
doesn't emulate accidentally is Fleetwood Mac -- yes, them (remember
"Gold Dust Woman"?) -- and you really hear it on "Boys
on the Radio" (which will probably be the next single) and
"Heaven Tonight." These songs nail the dreamy-druggy-doomy
Fleetwood Mac sound that seems to sum up the '70s.
If it's old-school Hole you
want, and "Reasons to be Beautiful" isn't enough for
you, check out the album's penultimate barn-burner. "Playing
Your Song," the song most explicitly about Cobain, goes
all the way back to "Retard Girl"; Love gets her voice
up to that tantrummy roar she so seldom employs on this disc.
The difference between this and early, flamethrowing Hole is
that the band is tighter and more disclipined, and Love has modulated
her caterwauling -- it's no longer just snarly and screechy,
as on a baby-Hole disc like The First Session. (Those
who find Love's voice abrasive have obviously never heard Bikini
Two other observations. Some
might ask why I prefer Hole's mainstream experiment to Liz Phair's.
Well, aside from my general preference for Love over Phair --
Liz, like other great lyricists such as Warren Zevon, is rather
limited vocally, and Love is much more expressive -- Celebrity
Skin isn't so much an exercise in mainstream as a subversion
of it. And the overproduction on Phair's album overwhelmed her
somewhat thin voice; nothing overwhelms Courtney Love's voice.
Also, even a cursory glance
at the CD packaging and lyrics yields an abundance of water references.
Without knowing whether Love has commented on this in any interviews,
I'll hazard a guess. It's partly a Chinatown thing, which
fits right into Love's caustic view of L.A. Also, on the cover
the band poses in front of a raging fire, and Love is wearing
a shirt with a flaming heart emblazoned on it (this is also the
symbol denoting her contributions to each track). So maybe for
Love, L.A. is the tasteless, transparent stuff that threatens
to put out creative/artistic fire. And hey, remember how Althea
ended up in The
People Vs. Larry Flynt. (The album is partly dedicated
"to anyone who ever drowned.")
If you jet-ski across the surface
of Celebrity Skin, you might conclude that Love herself
has done a belly-flop into L.A.'s pool of banality and fakeness.
Dive a little deeper, though, and you'll see she's still burning
hot and bright, and she's not going out any time soon.