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Since Courtney Love left her post as riot grrrl banner-carrier and scene-and-‘zine troublemaker, punk purists have argued that her mainstream celebrity precludes musical integrity. That’s a fallacy that imputes loads of significance but no actual definition to “musical integrity,” and it’s a vast underestimation of Love’s place in the boldface landscape, which was never a matter of authenticity, even during her marriage. She has always been on her way to achieving the uncontextualized celebrity that Madonna borrowed from the C-lists game-show panelists and variety stars with vague talents they no longer exercised and wrote impossibly large. By boutiquing her personae, multiplying her media, and conflating her references, Madonna used free-floating fame as Chapter 1 in her superstar guidebook, and no germane lesson has ever been lost on Courtney Love.
Her concerns, of course, are hardly Madonna’s the difference in their ages is small, but they are from exponentially disparate periods in celeb culture; Love courts not irony but conflict; she eschews self-help generalizing and craves the precision of poetry. People who find Love difficult to take see her continued public presence as unreconcilable with the interior quality of her art. On her first post-Kurt album, this dialogue is no longer so solipsistic. She struggles to find her place in the music industry (a moot point before she was one of its major players), takes stock of the Hollywood wasteland she narrowly left behind, and walks the tightrope between desire and a well-earned fear of loss.
Celebrity Skin throws less in your face than the breakthrough Live Through This or, heaven knows, Pretty on the Inside, which are products of Love’s inability to reconcile her pop goals with her self. Blame it on Versace, or the Oscars, or Amanda De Cadenet, but Love has moved past questions of identity, even musical ones, and none of these glossy associations should matter now that she is writing the most willful, vertiginously beautiful songs of her life.
Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan co-wrote the music on five of the 12 songs. (Accusations of credit-snatching, uninterestingly, are flying.) The late Cobain’s formal genius was in his attention-getting alternating structures, but they have since become a lazy habit among musicians a chunklike songcraft that burbles forth with every other rotation of the spin pin. Corgan is incapable of writing this simplistically; on his own records, he performs his elliptical rhythms and fierce melodies within the crunch or what used to be called grunge framework, collapsing form and function, syntax and semantics. His struggles with the punk legacy that spawned him knowing just how much pop he needs to insinuate to be popular are at the root of his own best work; he knows just how to craft parameters for the new, big-picture Courtney who, after all, sings often of the lucrative psychological returns of a little “candy coating.” On Celebrity Skin, he draws a small space in which crunch and melody coexist; there’s no room for the band to noodle or the singer to get distracted.
The first and title tune kicks off with tricks from both Corgan’s trademark joke-metal guitar chords and Love singing, “Oh make me over/I’m all I wanna be/A walking study/In demonology.” But the song is pretty on the inside, immediately copping to its gotcha opening by leaving chords and self-reflection behind. Instead, the crunch goes creamy; the song rises in pitch and hope with a yeah-hey chorus, an intentionally misleading invitation in this dark meditation on the Hollywood debasement machine. “Awful,” written by the band (guitarist Eric Erlandson, bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, drummer Patty Schemel), does it again, but prettier, speedier, the verses tumbling down upon one another, with Love, in clear and girlish voice, in skintight control of the mess that punk rock begat and the shining things she’s digging from its rubble. Her lyrical focus is staggering full of conflict and totally ambivalent without ever being ambiguous. “It was punk/Yeah it was perfect/Now it’s awful” she sings sunnily, protecting the moniker while shrugging off the myth.
Love’s imagery bank hasn’t changed: candy and sugar, purity and innocence, angels, stars, the sea, fire, death, and flowers. She gets off on the sullied what drama queen doesn’t? but the widow in her mourns what’s under the dirt, so the candy melts or is “sugarless,” and the “Petals” are torn off to “make you tell the truth.” Angels kneel, their hearts “white and cold.” The stars are the ones she sees because he “Hit So Hard,” and the one she’s named for his eyes. Anyone with such lurid tastes is going to be attracted to weepies, but on Celebrity Skin’s slow numbers, the lyrics are simple and sad and twice as effective. Only on “Northern Star” guitar and voice, so you know it’s serious does the structure collapse under lushness. But the others are heartbreaking in any context; in “Dying” (she is) and “Reasons to Be Beautiful” (she needs), Love crawls hopelessly under the skin of a missing lover, her rage temporarily subdued by more complicated feelings: confusion, vulnerability, and pain.
Speaking of things under one’s skin, Love and Erlandson’s heroin song is as blatant as they get, although it eschews the weak puns and execution-as-sensation that plague smack-rock; “Heaven Tonight” is loose and strummy, a lilting piece of acoustic-ready folk pop with first-rate imagery, in which the heroine enters and dances ecstatically “Here comes the storm in the form of a girl/She’s the finest, sweetest thing in the world”; no doomy maunderings, no nod-off droning, just fittingly deceptive la-la-la. Even here, Love’s vision is relentlessly focused: Form equals content, the thing is its soul; she even closes the tune out with an ad, chanting, “Take it tonight.”
Love’s palette goes a lot further when her anger and her angels are on the back burner; when they’re not, the furious numbers grind a little repetitively and ring a little hollow. To lash out at the music business, consumers, or culture in general for abusing artists and their work is to misunderstand her own status; there’s no question that artists are de-juiced and their husks discarded by the industry that made them, but the personal implications of Love’s invective are unseemly. “Use Once & Destroy” and the egregious “Playing Your Song” misuse her admirable lyrical simplicity for unenlightened carping “It’s just so mean and cruel/They sold you out” is flat and dumb next to the Smiths’ “In my bedroom in those ‘ugly new houses’/I dance my legs down to the knees” from “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” which had the grace to pretend that biz dishonesty hurt the fans and not the entourage.
Celebrity Skin is almost over when it reaches its emotional center, a tune that distills all the band’s concerns down to a pinpoint: “Boys on the Radio” is as magical and illusory and unexpectedly honest as the candy-colored L.A. it dreams of. It’s a sing-along of anthemic proportions, but the viewpoint is all Love’s. Her jealousy and resentment at the boy-loving music industry are a source of personal amusement; she loves boys, too, and the pretty music they make. Her vocals drag behind Erlandson’s hard strumming, as if she’s humming along with the radio, and when she recontextualizes pop betrayal, or her husband’s death, it’s to regret not just the loss of individual promise, but the world of ephemeral AM fantasy-making. And she doesn’t unduly romanticize the allure of an “endless summer night” by taking her Beach Boys straight.
Everyone who believes in pop dreams knows that when you get to the Pacific Ocean you’ll fall off the end of the world, and “Boys on the Radio” reveals this as the sea Love struggles in and out of, both in peril and as a rescuer. She recognizes Los Angeles’ temptations as sanctuary and booby trap (“Malibu”), although at her strongest she veers along the shoreline, skeptical but tempted. Celebrity Skin’s L.A. sound fetish is the album’s greatest asset and best joke. Courtney Love is a formidable artist not despite her pop leanings, but because of them. Here she stops wondering who she is and what you think of her, and coolly informs you that there’s no such thing as selling out in this chaotic new world she helped to create.