New York Now, September 6, 1998

Hole Truth [Review of Hole's "Celebrity Skin" with Lindsey mentioned]

Courtney Love comes into her own with an album of smart songs

HOLE "Celebrity Skin" (DGC)

Here's the good news about Courtney Love's first album in four years: She's still a braying mess!

Serious music fans fretted that rock's most scandalous woman might lose her demented edge, and her point of view, given all that has happened in the time since her last release.

When Love put out "Live Through This" in 1994, just days before her heroin-addicted husband Kurt Cobain committed suicide, she captured the pop moment with more terrifying truth than she or anyone else could have anticipated. The album detailed the tortured connection between rock's first couple and the scathing world-view of grunge with unflinching ferocity.

But the world moved on, and so did Love, not necessarily in similar orbits. In the time since, Love dolled herself up in Versace, became pals with movie stars and got more plastic surgery than Roseanne. Meanwhile, grunge got gangrene. Since rumors had long swirled that Cobain secretly wrote much of the music on "Live Through This," it put Love's whole creative future in jeopardy.

Over the last year, speculation only escalated. Word leaked out that Love had begun writing music with Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, and had solicited ideas from Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, leading inquiring minds to wonder: Just what kind of Frankenstein monster would Love end up with, and how would it all fit into the current pop scheme?

"Celebrity Skin" offers the most satisfying answer possible. Musically, the album seems well suited to pop's current accent on melody, while staying true to Love's snarling essence. Lyrically, the star strikes an ideal balance, too, revealing new things about her character and milieu while sticking to the reckless persona that drew us to her to begin with.

Studying Pays Off

Musically, it seems like Love drew far more from Buckingham's suggestions than Corgan's writing. (The head Pumpkin contributed to five of the album's 12 tracks, though always mixed with four other writers. Buckingham did no direct writing.) From Buckingham she seems to have learned the importance of the formal elements of pop. "Celebrity Skin" features far stronger bridges, more glistening arrangements and fuller melodies, going way beyond grunge's two-chord range.

The result sounds more like early Blondie: tough girl-punk-pop with Love's own special vinegar tossed in. "Hit So Hard" spurs its guitars with keyboards sharp enough for a Cars hit, while the title track boasts an opening guitar riff catchy enough for Joan Jett. The band threads lots of numbers with twinkling folk-rock guitars that could come off a Fleetwood Mac record. In all these songs, Love's barking vocals add kick.

Hole's new album shows grit and grace.

Her lyrics up the individuality. She's certainly got no shortage of subjects to draw from. "Celebrity Skin" offers Love's first writing since she became a musical star in her own right, not to mention her first since Cobain's death. Given the obsessive press surrounding her over all this time, Love might well have gone the same route as Michael Jackson or Madonna during their most scrutinized periods, collapsing into paranoid, self-righteous rants about the media and her vanished privacy.

Thank God she didn't do anything of the sort. Instead, Love takes responsibility for her world, writing about what draws her and others to beautiful sick boys and corrupting fame. She does so in both cautionary tales (like the title track, where she warns a Hollywood hopeful what she's in for) and self-indictments (like "Northern Star," where she can't help falling for a man who "will ruin the world"). She's operating in the cliché of beautiful loser songs. But the twist is that Love sends up the very doomed men she's drawn to. In "Boys on the Radio," she sticks it to her cool boy objects, calling them "rotten to the core."

If "Celebrity Skin" took book form, you'd title it "Horrible Self-Loving Rock Stars and the Crazy Women Who Love Them." In other words, it presents Love as still the needy girl who "wants the most cake." But at least now she knows where she went wrong. And she doesn't paint everything black. In "Heaven Tonight," she writes about an uplifting (!) romance, while in "Awful," she reasserts the power of the pop song to liberate your life. "If the world is so wrong/you can take it all with one song," she tells an aspiring rocker.

Nirvana did just that in 1992 with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Hole did it to a smaller degree in '95 with "Doll Parts." Now with "Celebrity Skin," Love changes her own world, proving that this much-scorned woman still knows the score.

Thanks to Karen for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.