Album Review: Hole’s Celebrity Skin

Every once in a while, when someone gets it just right, bubblegum pop takes on properties far greater than the music was ever meant to imply. The result is almost freakishly timeless, a juxtaposition that pits the genre’s hallowed hollowness against an eerie weight and somehow retains both characteristics in equal parts.

It says something that the two shining examples of bubblegum gone dark, the Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth and Unrest’s Imperial f.f.r.r., were absolute flops commercially. They’ve become fodder for obscurants, musical documents as adored in some circles as they are ignored in most.

Judging from the material on Hole’s debut album, the squalid and tuneless Pretty on the Inside, Courtney Love was about as far from bubblegum as one could get. But there she was, on Live Through This, ripping through an inspired version of the Marble Giants’ “Credit in the Straight World.” At the time, it seemed like an anomaly, a gleeful break in a sea of caterwauling. Hindsight, though, is 20/20; Celebrity Skin proves that “Credit in the Straight World” was a warning shot not an aberration.

It takes about one second for Hole to assert its new mission: the whoosh that sets up the opening pop-metal riff of the title track is, like the best of Unrest, both sublimely silly and spookily prescient. By the second song, “Awful,” Hole drops all pretense and directly invokes Unrest, riding a groove that critic Eric Weisbard notes was lifted directly from Imperial’s “Cherry Cream On” (lest ye doubt, the lyrics are too: the word “cherry” pops up repeatedly).

This referentiality is heretofore unheard of: Celebrity Skin is, I think, the first album ever to consciously, studiously reach for bubblegum pop greatness. In doing so, it openly repudiates autobiography. Half of the western word will probably tear through the lyric sheet looking for allusions to Kurt; the other half will quote the clever “walking study in demonology” line from “Celebrity Skin” as autobiographical grist. But when all is said and done, the album’s great moment of inward reflection comes when Love sings to herself “Baby, drive away to Malibu.” Celebrity Skin is, for the most part, a drive to Malibu: Love shuts off autobiography and clings to the desperate belief expressed in “Awful” that “you can break them all with just one song.”

At least, that’s how the album’s best moments operate. Lurking in Celebrity Skin is an almost brilliant song cycle – a story of a bad girl trying to forget bad times by listening to the radio. Onto the music she hears, she projects her own identity crisis (“Celebrity Skin”), joyous faith (“Awful;” “Heaven Tonight”), denial (“Malibu”), reflection (“Boys on the Radio”), and finally bitterness (“Playing Your Song”), ending right back where she started.

The tunes get over as pop commentary because they’re crisp and surprisingly genial. “Celebrity Skin” is the year’s most propulsive single, a big dumb glam-metal riff performed with brio and concision; “Malibu” and “Heaven Tonight” are sunny and relaxed enough to evoke memories of another great pop band, the late lamented Go-Gos (“Heaven Tonight” tosses in for good measure a cheesy Culture Club-worthy love plaint: “I’ll gallop to you”).

Just as the Go-Gos masked dark underpinnings in their ostensibly giddy pop anthems, Hole proves capable of delivering jarring counterpoints. Midway through “Awful,” Love chants out of nowhere “Oh just shut up, you’re only 16;” that it’s set to such a jaunty ditty makes it all the more unnerving. Has Love, who got by on Live Through This with a timely mix of Zeitgeist and raw anger, finally come in to her own as a songwriter?

Those who remain skeptical of her talent even after Live Through This (and I count myself among them) still have plenty of reason to doubt if they’re so inclined. There’s the now-infamous Billy Corgan influence; the head Smashing Pumpkin gets recognition for co-writing five songs, including several of the aforementioned highlights. Corgan’s not invisible on Celebrity Skin – a couple of tracks feature the sort of pseudo-electronica that the new Smashing Pumpkins album is so unnecessarily fond of, and Love’s “I knew the darkest secret of your heart” could be torn straight out of Corgan’s blowhard anthem “Muzzle” – but he’s not nearly as ubiquitous as he was initially purported to be.

Producer Michael Bienhorn, on the other hand, is damn near omnipresent. Bienhorn, also responsible for Marilyn Manson’s glam revival, is to sheen what Steve Albini is to skronk. Accordingly, the album sounds as if it’s coated in cellophane. This approach works wonders on Love’s pop-about-pop cycle, fittingly submersing the band in bubblegum plasticity.

Unfortunately, it also plays a large part in destroying the rest of the album. Between well-crafted pop anthems, Love indulges in an equal number of tiresome attempts to expand the scope of her vision. So we get an unforgivable amount of chaff: “Hit So Hard” is shockingly limp for a sex song, “Dying” and “Northern Star” lurch dourly about as if they’re afraid to be likeable. Bienhorn’s production on these already substandard tracks turns them into drastically weaker versions of material that was, frankly, much more interesting and emancipating on Live Through This.

The truth is that Courtney Love is not, and never has been, the cultural symbol she’s been accused of/held up as/forced to be. She’s a musician. Her work on Celebrity Skin is insightful and sincere when she limits herself to this musician role, strained and unenlightening when she crosses the line into cultural icon territory. Coutney’s proven she can be our bubblegum queen, but even bubbglegum has a shelf life. After all, if you really can break them all with just one song, why bother with an album of twelve?

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