"Hey, there's only us left now," Courtney Love notices on the title rocker that opéns Hole's new album, the band's first since 1994's Live Through This. Her co-stars are a bassist, Melissa Auf Der Maur; a drummer, Patty Schemel; and one pent-up guitarist, Eric Erlandson, who keeps going for the throat. Love sounds sick of people who don't miss vinyl, who don't understand how to use records as ways to make sense of their lives.
Celebrity Skin — an album about fame, beauty, life and their opposites — is Hole's passionate response. It's sprung, flung and fun, high-impact, rock-fueled pop with the body and flexibility of really good hair. Hole are immediately in your face with the cheese-metal riffs and cuddly dissolves of "Celebrity Skin," a track full of cloudless energy that seems to explode the malaise that has surrounded Love since husband Kurt Cobain's death. "If the world is so wrong," Love insists next on "Awful," "Yeah, you can break them all/With one song."
The album teems with sonic knockouts that make you see all sorts of stars. It's accessible, fiery and intimate — often at the same time. Here is a basic guitar record that's anything but basic. On high points like "Awful" and the gorgeous "Malibu," Hole act as though making big radio-ready hits smart now equals pure punk rock.
Love herself is a combination of Los Angeles messiness and London obliqueness, a mix of the ungovernable expressiveness of Stevie Nicks and the refracted psychedelicism of a British loner like Julian Cope. Producer Michael Beinhorn — who steered Soundgarden through the wiry heavens of guitar rock on Superunknown — helps pull together these two unlikely sides of Love's artistic personality. The result is more shiftingly special than the heavy-handed grunge of Live Through This. Celebrity Skin is all minimalist explosion, idiomatic flair and dead-on rhythms. On "Malibu," a ballad about separation and escape, Erlandson's guitar changes from silveriness to something rougher in a heartbeat. This is rock & roll that's supple enough to handle Love's amphitheaters of emotion.
It's wavy, like the Pacific Ocean. That's one of Love's other obsessions on Celebrity Skin: the promises and the agonies of Southern California. Sold-out sluts, fading actresses, deluded teenagers, "summer babes" and hunks — all this "beautiful garbage" crowds the roadside of the album. So Billy Corgan, Hole's other major collaborator, who co-wrote five superb songs on Skin, makes real sense here. By advocating structure in '92 with the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan stood firm for the L.A. tradition of closely considered studio rock as an avenue to freedom. The songs he worked on here include "Hit So Hard," an unhurried groove about full-on crushes that never lays back; "Dying," a slightly electronicized ballad where Love reveals her need to be "under your skin"; and "Petals," whose subtle minor-key remembrances and grand demands build to a spectacular climax. Clearly, Corgan has shown Hole how to relax and go for it.
Other songs are as impressive. On "Reasons to Be Beautiful," Hole recapture the Los Angeles of X, the first punk band to burlesque the downside of L.A. "Miles and miles of perfect skin," Love sings, "I swear I do, I fit right in." But as much as she loves a boho band like X, Love lives for grand gesture. After howling through "Northern Star," she cheers up with "Boys on the Radio," one of the most moving pop songs the Nineties have heard. The text involves Love's male competitors, and how she loves and hates them. As Erlandson switches from strum-y verses to exquisitely fucked-up chords ever so slightly behind the beat, Love's unreal vocal attitude — sensuous but distant, as though she's tugging at the pop nation, her life and your heart, from Venus — takes the song someplace else altogether. She considers "endless summer nights" that she knows are illusions but that she craves anyway. With its odd angle on heartbreak, the song is an end-of-the-century "More Than a Feeling." And as Celebrity Skin keeps arguing, that's something the world can sure use.
You don't need to know or love Courtney Love — to care about her highly chronicled trek from ripped cropped tops to Versace gowns — to enjoy this album. Even Love herself, though, can't deny her own myth: In the album's very first verse, she casts herself as "a walking study/In demonology." Love has not seized the occasion of the third Hole album to force her thoughts into a meticulous memoir, a well-put apology or even a clear explanation. On Celebrity Skin, she isn't especially after journalistic precision, and she isn't devising some glam plan to seem brilliant. She just knows exactly the kind of rock star she wants to be, and is it.