She may still have called herself Courtney Love, but the walking vanilla ice cream cone with the page-girl haircut who strode into last year’s Oscars wasn’t the Courtney we knew and loved. Love’s surreal mutation into a movie starlet was an unsettling vision — the girl with the most pancake. Now, with “Celebrity Skin” — the first new album in four years by her band Hole — Love is once again in rock-star mode, as the cover photo makes scuzzily, abundantly clear. The gowns and high-priced-salon hairdos are gone, replaced by a navel-baring midriff and stringy, limp hair.
Determined to live up to that stance, the album blasts open with the monolithic throb of the title track. “I’m all I wanna be/A walking study, in demonology,” Love sneers, as lead guitarist Eric Erlandson shreds notes. It feels like old grunge times. You’re tempted to shout: Welcome back, Courtney, and it’s about damn time.
As the song grinds on, though, something seems off. The instruments are boisterous and brawny, but they’re as conventional as those on a Third Eye Blind single. Similarly, Love’s voice is less blemished and technically more melodious than the box-cutter roar she brandished on 1994’s “Live Through This.” But she too sounds less razor-edged, more anonymous. From start to almost finish, “Celebrity Skin” is dogged by that same sense of vacillation and rootlessness. It’s the sound of a returning hero who attempts to act as if nothing’s changed — when, in fact, everything has, including the hero.
Hole couldn’t, and shouldn’t, have remade “Live Through This,” a careening force of nature that was very much of its Lollapalooza-era time. Their alternatives were to either dive further underground or become more populist. But what the band, producer Michael Beinhorn (who honed Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”), and frequent songwriting collaborator Billy Corgan have opted for is an unsatisfying middle ground. The music is sleeker and more taut than anything Hole have done. “Malibu,” one of several songs probably about her late husband, Kurt Cobain (“How’d you get so desperate/ How’d you stay alive”), is fueled by a blend of acoustic and electric guitars that conjures a drive through the mountains with the top down. But most of the record has neither the spare, springy power of indie rock nor the exuberant rush of mainstream hard rock. “Celebrity Skin” has the makings of a wild-eyed confessional work. This is Love’s first batch of songs since Cobain’s death, and many of them appear to address his depression and flameout. The soft, ghoulish “Dying,” one of “Celebrity Skin”‘s most chilling moments, crawls around in a pit of ennui. “Northern Star,” a portentous, somewhat draggy acoustic ballad with strings, is part angelic send-off, part angry kiss-off. Elsewhere there are rants against what Love sees as a cynical, destructive world (the beautiful Goth-grunge “Petals”) as well as odes to romantic rebirth (“Heaven Tonight,” which is leaden pop). But just as Hole sounds generic, so does Love. Whether it’s the result of voice lessons or studio wizardry, her delivery is eerily wrinkle free. Alluding to her own physical resculpting, she sings, in “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” of her “miles and miles of perfect skin/I swear I do/I fit right in.” But this corrosive line is delivered blandly, without a hint of insight or wit.
It isn’t until its penultimate track, “Playing Your Song,” that “Celebrity Skin” truly lets loose. In this screed against the corrupting of Love’s former grunge culture (which, again, could be sung to Cobain’s ghost), Love revs to a full-throttle roar, and the band throws a psychedelicized, warp-speed assault back at her. A Geffen spokesperson dismissed the song as a throwaway, but the track is one of the few reminders that Love still has magnetism and power to burn. As it also demonstrates, she needs a voice–and music–that bleed with her, as they did on Live Through This. Celebrity Skin doesn’t shed much of anything. It’s the music business’ take on the current climate of celebrity makeover: aural plastic surgery.