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Celebrity Skin

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 music.

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 Kill.)

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.