Forget, just for a moment, everything you’ve heard about Courtney Love for the past three years — the tales, apocryphal and otherwise, of substance misadventure; her, uh, lively marriage to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and checkered passage into motherhood; the endless Yoko Ono comparisons and dragon-bitch disses. Then go straight to the lusty, vengeful, lung-busting “Fuck y-o-u-u-u-u!” that blows the roof off “I Think That I Would Die” three-quarters of the way through Live Through This. Even if you have serious reservations about punk-rock brats living on major-label largesse or believe profanity is the last refuge of the inarticulate, the sheer force of Love’s corrosive, lunatic wail — not to mention the guitar-drum wrath unleashed in its wake — is impressive stuff, a scorched-earth blast of righteous indignation as feral and convincing as anything in Johnny Rotten’s bark-and-spittle repertoire.
It is also the very thing that made Courtney Love, Hole’s founding singer and guitarist, such a wonder grrrl in the first place. Even before she ascended to celebrity spousehood, Love was the scarred beauty queen of underground-rock society, a fearless confessor and feedback addict whose sinister charisma — part ravaged baby doll, part avenging kamikaze angel — suggested the dazed, enraged, illegitimate daughter of Patti Smith. Hole’s 1991 debut album, the gloriously assaultive Pretty on the Inside, remains a classic of sex-mad self-laceration, hypershred guitars and full-moon bawling, in particular the spectacular goring of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” (a k a “Clouds”) at the end of the record. You don’t really know the solitary despair at the core of that song until you’ve heard Love’s embittered delivery of the last two lines — “It’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all” — over guitarist Eric Erlandson’s fading squall.
Live Through This is, in comparison, prettier on the outside, with a greater emphasis on crushed-velvet guitar distortion and liquid poppish strumming. There are tart, hooky guitar maneuvers (the sing-along clatter of “Miss World”) and vocal airs and graces (the faux-Gregorian drone prefacing the hepped-up cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Credit in the Straight World”) that invoke the divine hammering of the Breeders. Even when Love picks at her open wound in “Doll Parts,” a song written from the losing end of naked ambition and vicious manipulation, she doesn’t overplay the hurt.
When I saw Hole perform the song live in Los Angeles back in the spring of ’92, Love flayed the melody with suicidal anguish in front of Erlandson’s industrial-strength guitar snort. Here, to the tense whisper of more muted picking, Love simply lets the scar tissue speak for itself: “He only loves those things because he loves to see them break/I fake it so real, I am beyond fake/And someday, you will ache like I ache.”
Unlike Love’s husband’s latest album, Hole’s Live Through This does not seem overly concerned with loneliness and treachery at the top. A little reading between the lines suggests that “She Walks Over Me,” a shot of speed throb belted by Love through a pay-telephone-like crackle, is at least a glancing blow at indie-rock purists and the glossy press (“Geeks do not have pedigrees/Or perfect punk-rock résumés/ Or anorexic magazines”). “I Think That I Would Die,” co-written with Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, may or may not have to do with Love’s fight for custody of her daughter after that infamous Vanity Fair profile (the main refrain is “I want my baby/Who took my baby … Where is my baby?”). But the real drama is in the whiplash mix of plaintive folk-pop prayer (“She lost her innocence/Gave it to an abscess”) and fuzz-box-triggered rage.
It’s not a new trick. Cobain patented that sugar-and-spike schematic (soft verse, bullish chorus) on Nevermind. But it works, brilliantly, on Live Through This because Love has a sure-footed band behind her — Erlandson, bassist Kristen Pfaff and drummer Patty Schemel — and has figured out how to fatten her punches as well as pull them. As a singer, Love bears a disarming resemblance to a world-weary Stevie Nicks (no kidding), and together, Hole have managed to harness the ugliness that drove Pretty on the Inside to a more controlled but still cutting extreme. With its daydream whispers and startling gunshot-guitar chorus, “Violet” shakes, rattles and roars like a godless marriage of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and (still not kidding) Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” And even if Love denies that her lyrics are explicitly autobiographical, to hear the vulnerability in her frayed voice as she sings the album’s key couplet in “Asking for It” — “If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you” — is to hear, at least for a few seconds, the woman behind the headlines.
With all that in mind, “Rock Star,” a sharp stick in the eye of the indie-rock flock (in particular, the Olympia, Wash., chapter of Riot Grrrl USA), seems an unfitting sign-off, a cheap shot not up to the album’s greater kicks. It’s funny enough; the shambling false start and finish neatly capture the self-conscious naiveté that has become such a cliché in the underground. But there’s better bullet rock elsewhere on the record (“Gutless,” for instance, which is mixed for maximum guitar slobber by Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis), and besides, it’s too easy to shoot pigeons from a perch built with David Geffen’s money.
Then again, this is the same woman who quoted Proverbs 21:7 on the back of Hole’s 1991 Sub Pop single “Dicknail”: “The mouth of a loose woman is a deep pit.” Live Through This is the work of a woman who measured the depth of her abyss by taking the plunge — and is still struggling for daylight.