A Terrible Beauty


Couldn’t say which color most becomes her, but Courtney Love’s best vowel is u. She throws herself into them all, of course, like a stage diver–wrings everything out of a tonality, then leaps on to the next. “Celebrity Skin,” her liposuctioned new single, triumphantly contained at 2:40, is a game of follow the bouncing vowels–“Oh/make/me/o-/ver”; “He-ey/ so/glad/ you /could/ma-ake/ it”–sung as if rocker was an ethnic accent. But u, the grunge vowel, the vowel of accusation, is her grounding stroke and poisoned flower. She avoids it to signify pop, as on “Boys on the Radio,” or the virtually parodic “Heaven Tonight.” Yet for the fierce stuff she’s got to cough up a u. It beckons like the suicide surf in “Malibu,” festers inside beautiful on “Reasons To Be Beautiful,” makes the same word rhyme with “Awful.”

One pun for an album full of them: Love is the drug. If she could, she would occupy all your senses simultaneously, hit you as hard as the guy who makes her see God in song three. Liz Phair has a similar sex fetish going on her new album, but Phair doesn’t instinctively debase herself in front of idols, or feel such a visceral, vehement need to compete with them. Cost no object, personal included. The first five cuts on Celebrity Skin have been retouched down to the pores. Hard rock slicker than Hanson, they have a drone around them, a ringing, a beacon of light, every chord progression shaped and 4/4 lightly ruffled by postpunk luminaries who’ve evolved into crafty theorists of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, ELO, the Cars, all the great pop compressionists. This stuff makes her celebrated mainstream veer, Live Through This, sound as shambling as Sebadoh III. It’s total dominance. Add “Boys on the Radio” and you’d have one of the wickedest vinyl LP sides ever.

Per-fect: I can hear Billy Corgan singing it now, only he sure didn’t get results like this on his own album. Buffalo Billy receives partial musical credit for five songs here, including three of the initial quintet. Of the remaining two, one, “Reasons To Be Beautiful,” owes to a guy from Blinker the Star and Go-Go Charlotte Caffey; the other, “Awful,” ought to preempt litigation and acknowledge lifts from the single “Cherry,” by Hole’s former Caroline labelmates Unrest. (Sounds obscure, but she covered the Young Marble Giants last time.) Love has always faced charges of not writing her own music. This time, though, she’s got an out: if Celebrity Skin is her “Los Angeles” album, who in Hollywood ever made a movie single-handed? Anyway, she and she alone is the genius of this system.

Hollywood productions take up about two-thirds of Celebrity Skin: tracks one to five; “Boys on the Radio” (which combines a different, unfinished song with a title/concept she couldn’t find the right vehicle for); “Petals” (a remake of a lyric from Live Through This‘s “Asking for It”); and the gleefully fluffy “Heaven Tonight” (cf. Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” though not, oddly, Cheap Trick’s own “Heaven Tonight”). Highly crafted formula, they’re also well-lit stages for Courtney’s expressionistic monologues. Mostly, she rants about sex and dying in high society–as a player now, not one of the “little girls.” Sometimes she’s dramatically anguished, like her pals Corgan and Stipe. And occasionally, she’s weirdly magisterial: “Oh the boys on the radio/They crash and burn/They fold and fade so slow”; “I miss the sweet boys/In the summer of their youth.” When did her memories of Kurt become A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young”?

Love has suggested that “Boys on the Radio” references Jeff Buckley more than her husband. Her Hollywood rhapsodies aren’t contingent on his death (or much worse, just include it as part of the ’90s iconic landscape), suiting the larger eminence she’s become. Only four songs on Celebrity Skin get off the treadmill and look back: “Dying,” with its “I am so dumb” Nirvana reminder; “Use Once and Destroy” (“I went down for the remains”); “Northern Star,” which takes a trip to the pines of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”; and “Playing Your Song,” about the aftermath. These numbers, the most personal on the record, are also the weakest: Pumpkins-redux strings, neutered grunge, looseleaf verbiage. If she’d released an album of such within a year or two of April 1994, the world would have understood and filed the thing under grieving widow. But Courtney is not so lightly categorized and dismissed.

Nobody can stand her and everybody has to love her; nobody loves her and everybody has to stand her; nobody can stand to love her every body; everybody who loves her has to stand, a nobody–tearing the petals off of Courtney Love is the sport of millions. Listening to Celebrity Skin, you can admire her newfound power or miss her flab, wonder if she’s capable of really caring for anyone or salute her for getting on with her life. There was an immediacy to Live Through This, in how she sang about the milk inside her breasts, that Celebrity Skin at its best tucks far away. Remember, though, that Live Through This was controversial, too; the success of ’90s pop can often be measured by how much it leaves us wondering if there’s something wrong with it, and whether we can, in good conscience or good taste, like it anyway.

That said, funny how Celebrity Skin, like plenty of the year’s other important work–Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Woody Guthrie score Mermaid Avenue, the Beastie Boys single “Intergalactic”–is a tribute to cultural consensus. All of them have been cooked but not overcooked, by artists and engineers who understand the appeal of punk (or the edge as they define it) and pop equally well. On some level, we’re overdue for another convulsion. But I’m not going to listen to Korn for penance, or argue with programmable pleasurability, especially when unique intelligences are essential to this particular style of searing in the juices. The only record of note besides Hole’s to rock out so blissfully this year is Pearl Jam’s Yield, and Eddie Vedder’s mind just doesn’t race as fast as Courtney’s. It’s nice to have her back for a while.

Not that there’s any reason to expect her to stay. At home in almost as many social realms as LL Cool J, following Madonna’s path from street urchin to society mogul, her cred now centers around her immersion in the mainstream, not the demimonde–only when she lives through it, the mainstream becomes a demimonde. Where Madonna programs and performs spectacle, Love aestheticizes it, seemingly off the cuff–a sweet-and-sour banquet played off against the new album’s hyperproduction. An inhabitor of chaos, wisecracking and kickboxing through every moment, she fashions lyricism out of the flux: among current rockers, only Stephen Malkmus does more with changes of pronoun, word substitutions in later verses, all the little things that keep perspective whipsawing. What provides better raw material, his miles and miles of style (“and it’s wasted”) or her miles and miles of perfect skin (“I fit right in”)? I hope this tabloid punk never loses her yen to experience new feelings of repugnance. That way she can cough it back up as needed. Spews from the muse.