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Hole's 'Celebrity Skin' -- a great read

By Matt Ashare

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  The first person Courtney Love thanks inside the new Hole album isn't a person at all, but a band. Echo and the Bunnymen. At first I thought it was a joke. Echo and the Bunnymen? They haven't done anything worthwhile in almost 15 years. Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan is the outsider who helped Love and her band write songs for the new Celebrity Skin (Geffen), not Ian McCulloch.

But the more you listen to the new Hole album, the more sense that Echo-and-the-Bunnymen thank-you makes. Post-punk and pre-ironic, Echo and the Bunnymen wanted to be the greatest band in the world in the early '80s. They made powerful, passionate guitar rock on a grand scale, with strings and keyboards and poetic lyrics that pondered deep human issues like, you know, death and the meaning of life. They weren't kidding, and eventually they got shit for it. Head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch had big hair and an even bigger mouth. People loved and hated him for the way he looked and the things he said. I think Courtney can relate.

A lot is going to be written and said and read into Celebrity Skin, which is being released this Tuesday. Hell, you could write an entire book on the lyrics alone, and that's not a claim one can reasonably make for most rock albums. It has been, without question, one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year, not because Hole move more units than Alanis Morissette (they don't come close), but because Courtney's a bigger celebrity than Alanis. Because, though this is technically the second Hole release since Love's husband, Kurt Cobain, killed himself, it's the first album written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy. Because since the release of Live Through This, in 1994, Love has been transformed from kinderwhore punk to Versace actress. Because all summer long people were watching and talking about a film that rather ineptly suggests the wife killed the icon. Because in a lot of ways we know what to expect from the Alanis Morissettes of the world, and not from the Courtney Loves.

All of which makes Celebrity Skin a loaded title, not to mention metaphor, for Love's first album in four years. There's more than one way to skin a celebrity, and Love knows it. She's seen it. She's lived through it. "Oh make me over/I'm all I wanna be/A walking study/In demonology" are the first words that come out of her mouth on Celebrity Skin -- the disc opens with the title track, which is also the first single -- and already she's confronting the pyrrhic victory of celebrity, of her life. Surrounded, we'll presume, by sycophants who want a piece of the action ("Well, I'm not selling cheap," she tells them), admired and abhorred by people she's never met, obsessed with looking good even if it doesn't feel very good, Love's living the dream that is the nightmare in a place where the progression from "might have been" to "never was" to "forgotten" sometimes really is as accelerated as the song suggests. "You better watch out/What you wish for/It better be worth it/So much to die for," she warns with a growl, and you're not sure whether she's talking to "might have been," "never was," "forgotten," or just herself.

Love's fans will be pleased with Celebrity Skin, and Hole fans -- the two really aren't the same thing -- will be even happier. It's the most perfect rock album yet by a band who didn't do such a bad job the last time around. Indeed, in a year that's seen rock, and particularly the rock album, lose much of its footing as metal (Creed), techno (Crystal Method), soundtracks (Titanic), and novelty (Korn) have risen to compete with urban/hip-hop on the radio and in the charts, Celebrity Skin immediately sounds like a triumph. The guitars that slice into the empty spaces of "Celebrity Skin" are sharp and hard enough to cut through all the bullshit that's surrounded Love for the past four years; then they fall away just long enough for you to appreciate the thunder when it returns. Subtler, or at least less abrupt, examples of the same sort of crisp, rise-and-fall dynamics pop up elsewhere on Celebrity Skin, as strummed acoustic guitars and the muscular bass playing of Melissa Auf der Maur (in her debut on a Hole CD) take on a more crucial supporting role than such things have had in the past for Hole. Those are a few of the many sonic details in a mix that doesn't require picking apart or demand deep analysis, that's inviting and exciting right up front, that reminds you what a great classic rock album sounds like without sounding quite like any other great classic rock album.

That in itself is an accomplishment, though Love's detractors will almost certainly point to the fact that Billy Corgan had a hand in writing five of the disc's 12 tunes as some sort of evidence that Courtney isn't all she pretends to be. Such an observation might be relevant if those five tracks were better than the others (they're not). Or if two of the disc's best tunes -- "Boys on the Radio" and "Awful" -- hadn't been written without Corgan's help. Or if Billy Corgan were really some kind of ace song doctor -- he's actually more of a riff technician and texturalist than a writerly writer.

There are hints of Corgan's influence, most noticeably in the way the vocal melody floats over the cascading guitars on the plaintively sweet "Malibu." But to give Corgan too much credit would be unfair to the other songwriting contributors: Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson (all 12 tunes), Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur (five), Hole drummer Patty Schemel (two), and former Go-Go Charlotte Caffey (one). Erlandson, who doesn't play any solos but whose command of texture and melody is crucial to the band's sound, appears to have been the sole catalyst (or, perhaps, enabler) for one of the disc's most poignant departures, the gorgeously sad "Northern Star," which bathes some of Courtney's more poetic verse in lovely acoustic guitar and strings.

And it's probably also worth noting that this isn't the first time producer Michael Beinhorn has pushed, led, bullied, cajoled, inspired, or whatever it is a producer does to get a great album out of a difficult band. His impressive track record includes breakthrough albums by Red Hot Chili Peppers (1989's Mother's Milk), Soul Asylum (1992's Grave Dancer's Union), and Soundgarden (1994's Superunknown). He definitely has a knack for paring songs down just enough to bring out the hooks and melodies without making them sound smaller, for adding polish without subtracting character, for bringing out what is most universally appealing about a band without destroying what makes them special. Celebrity Skin doesn't sound like Grave Dancer's Union or Superunknown, but it does for Hole's sound what those albums did for the sound of Soul Asylum and Soundgarden. It enhances.

All of which is just another way of saying that Celebrity Skin is, like most commercial rock albums, a collaborative effort. This is something Love acknowledges tacitly, by performing as part of a band named Hole instead of as a solo artist, and overtly, by writing the music to her songs collaboratively. I say "her songs" because they are hers, she makes them hers, she lives in them and she brings them to life. And though the work of writing the music for Hole has always been spread around (Courtney credits herself for music on just eight of the new disc's 12 tunes), writing lyrics is something Courtney does all by herself. ("I wouldn't feel very comfortable singing somebody else's lyrics unless they are by Fleetwood Mac," she told Flipside way back in 1990.)

If music -- sound -- is what sets the stage for Celebrity Skin's triumph, then words -- meaning -- are what bring the house down. The music lays the hooks, but the words are what reel you in -- because music is what your body feels when you listen to a pop song and lyrics are what you really hear. Celebrity Skin feels good, and it's also just about as good as rock lyrics get -- simple, direct, and universal on the surface, yet increasingly complex, personal, and full of provocative ambiguities as you let yourself fall deeper into the songs. There are chilling moments, as when Courtney paraphrases Kurt's suicide note on the grungy "Reasons To Be Beautiful": "When the fire goes out you better learn to fake/It's better to rise than fade away." Or when the rather oblique drug song "Use Once & Destroy" ("It's poisonous it muscles it aches. . . . It's the emptiness that's all you have left") turns all too lucid for a verse: "I went down for the remains/Sort through all your blurs and stains." Or when she sings "And oh, I had to tell them you were gone/I had to tell them they were wrong/And now they're playing your song" on "Playing Your Song." And those are just a few of the places where Kurt Cobain -- his absence -- haunts Celebrity Skin and we're reminded that the world lost a great artist but Courtney lost her husband and the father of her child.

Elsewhere, Love paints vivid, if disturbing, pictures of Los Angeles. It's "miles and miles of perfect skin" and then "miles and miles of perfect sin" in "Reasons To Be Beautiful," and it's full of hooker-model-waitress-actresses in "Celebrity Skin," a pile of "beautiful garbage." But for all the ugliness, the dark emotions, the anger and loss, and the deep cynicism -- the metaphorical blemishes that dot Love's Celebrity Skin -- there's also a real sense of hope and beauty bubbling under in these songs. It's as if Love were reminding us that she really meant it when she titled Hole's debut album Pretty on the Inside. "It was punk/Yeah it was perfect/Now it's awful," she reflects at the beginning of "Awful." But by the end of the tune she's shouting, "If the world is so wrong/Yeah you can break them all with one song/If the world is so wrong/Yeah you can take it all with one song." Which is really the whole premise of punk.

In a way, that underlying sense of hope is also what connects Love to a band like Echo and the Bunnymen: things may be fucked, you may be fucked, the whole world may be fucked, but a great rock song can change all that for a few minutes, a great album for an hour. And that's something.


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