There's no doubt that Courtney Love has undergone one of the entertainment industry's most remarkable makeovers.
Five years ago, it was hard to find anyone who had anything good to say about her. Even though she had her own band, Hole, she was criticized within the alternarock world as an opportunist who leeched off the fame of husband Kurt Cobain. She was denounced in Vanity Fair as a drug addict and unfit mother, and portrayed in other profiles as a vengeful egomaniac.
Even after Cobain's suicide in 1994, weeks before the release of Hole's last album, "Live Through This," Love got little slack. Critics praised the album but wondered how much of its genius was actually Cobain's. There were even suggestions that Love had a hand in her husband's death, rumors given fresh currency in the film "Kurt and Courtney" (which opens at the Charles Friday).
Most of those bad feelings seem to have been swept away, though. After winning the role of Althea Flynt in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," Love seemed beloved by the media. Not only did her acting earn rave reviews and a Golden Globe, but Love herself was applauded, painted now as a smart, savvy pop star who had not only cleaned up her image but was on her way to mainstream acceptability.
That poised and polished persona carries through to Hole's new album, "Celebrity Skin" (DGC 25164, arriving in stores today). On the cover, Love looks lean, muscular and assured -- not quite a glamourpuss, but a far cry from the scruffy image she presented on "Live Through This."
Likewise, the band's music seems more accessible and refined. Even though tracks like "Miss World" and "Doll Parts" were catchy enough for MTV, much of "Live Through This" was too screechingly intense to qualify as mainstream fare. "Celebrity Skin," by contrast, has almost no rough edges at all, using catchy choruses and carefully sculpted arrangements to make its point.
Love still likes to play the provocateur; the difference this time around is that no matter how much she may want to get in our face, she doesn't want to risk truly annoying her audience.
She hasn't lost her ability to outrage, though. "Hit So Hard" will vTC undoubtedly raise quite a few eyebrows. It seems to glorify an abusive relationship -- while the verses have Love swooning in adoration, the chorus finds her admitting "He hit so hard/I saw stars" -- but most of the outrage will likely come from those who will assume that the man in question is her late husband.
Love, of course, loves lyrics that could read scandalously, and litters the album with similarly intended puns. "Reasons to Be Beautiful" is in that regard particularly entertaining, with lyrics like "Love hangs herself/With the bedsheets in her cell" and "Love hates you."
To her credit, though, she revels in her stardom even as she satirizes the image-obsessed shallowness of American celebrity. It's hard not to smile at the wicked wit of the album's title track, which finds Love introducing herself with a knowing wink:
Oh make me over
I'm all I wanna be
A walking study
That Love can so cheerily mock her own visibility is only part of the song's charm. The bulk of its appeal stems from the combination of guitar crunch and melodic punch, a blend that adds a crank-it-up kick to the chorus without diminishing the sing-along likability of the verse. On the whole, Hole has never seemed so commercial.
Credit for that newfound accessibility doesn't belong with the band alone, however. "Celebrity Skin," like four other songs on the album, was written with the assistance of Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan, something that already has some pundits speculating that Corgan has replaced Cobain as Love's chief source for solid hooks.
There are moments on the album that definitely sound like Corgan. "Malibu," for instance, is built around a melody so strongly reminiscent of Corgan's work that you can almost hear his reedy tenor whining beneath Love's breathy vocal on the verse. Unsurprisingly, the songwriting credits list Corgan along with Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson.
Don't jump to conclusions. "Northern Star" also sounds Corgan-esque, with its plangent melody, busy chord structure and melancholy string sweetening. Check the credits, however, and Corgan's name is nowhere to be found -- the song was written by Erlandson and Love.
Besides, the issue for most listeners isn't who wrote what, but how the album sounds. And it sounds pretty good. It isn't just that Love and her band have replaced the petulant, self-indulgent clangor of their early work with a disciplined, dynamic instrumental approach; there's also a more obvious respect for melody in these songs. These songs are catchy and approachable.
Making a catchy album isn't the best way for Hole to retain its alternarock credibility, but so what? As "Celebrity Skin" makes clear, this band doesn't care what you think of it, just so long as you listen. And frankly, that seems a pretty mature position to take.
"Celebrity Skin" (DGC 25164)
Sun score: ***
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Hole's new release, "Celebrity Skin," call Sundial at 410- 783-1800 and enter the code 6219. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.
Pub Date: 9/08/98