Review Summary: Hole's pop album is actually a massive statement from Courtney Love as a songwriter, and captures a band in its creative best, delivering an essential 90's rock record.
The band Hole should be no stranger to any fan of 90's alternative rock. They had a decade to remember by releasing a couple of memorable albums during Seattle's grunge scene's heyday. Unfortunately, many people unfairly dismiss Hole merely because of Courtney Love. Because of her uninhibited stage presence and eccentric personality, people often refuse to even give the band a fair chance. That's a huge shame because Hole was quite a talented group. The 3 albums they recorded during the 90's are a fitting sonic representation of how they evolved as a band: from the noisy and furious hardcore punk debut Pretty On The Inside
to 1994's big breakout record Live Through This
(a little less rough around the edges but agressive enough to garner appreciation from the fanbase that had been established since the debut). From there to Celebrity Skin
. The band's 3rd and last album (until a mixed bag of a "reunion" album) was deliberately a departure from the noisy and agressive style of the earlier records. And an immensely effective one, in fact.
What we have on Celebrity Skin
is, above all, an applaudable evolution from Courtney Love as a vocalist and songwriter. Backed up by her great colleague Eric Erlandson (providing his guitar ability as well as ever here) and finding a mentor in Billy Corgan, Love steps up as a lyricist and pursues her Stevie Nicks admiration to some incredibly great results. At times she may sound a bit corny, but a certain sense of maturity in her words blends in alongside her childish naivety perfectly, resulting in Hole's best album lyrically. Musically, it sounds just as fresh. The guitar sound here is quite softer but also more diverse than the band's typical dual guitar attack by Love and Erlandson. Melissa Auf der Maur is hired to play bass after Kristen Pfaff's untimely death in 1994 and does a great job, as her work serves as the backbone for the songs here. The only setback here is an absence of Patty Schemel's drumming, as she and producer Michael Beinhorn developed an unhealthy feud which resulted in her departure from the band during early recording sessions. Personal tensions aside, Celebrity Skin
is Hole's most cohesive album, providing some of the rough and agressive tone they became famous for but also adding a pop rock flair to appeal to more people. All aspects combined, it just may be Hole's best album.
The title track "Celebrity Skin" serves as a perfect opener. Retaining the agressive and straightforward sound of earlier releases, it sets a perfect tone, as the simple 3 chord riff is catchy and ultimately memorable as ever, and the driving singalong chorus is just as effective. Love's vocal delivery really is given room to shine in the great acoustic bridge, and her storytelling here is both interesting and captivating. All in all, the title track is a perfect opener and a memorable song, truly a highlight to be found here. Curiously enough, it's one of the few tunes that most resembles Hole's punk and grunge era, and out of that bunch it definitely provides the best results. Other examples here include "Reasons To Be Beautiful" and "Use Once And Destroy", both of which are just over 5 minutes long and manage to remain interesting enough to deserve repeated listens (while the former relies on the typical downtuned chunky guitar riffs that had become so common during that period, the latter expands beyond that formula and, backed up by a memorable chorus, stands out just slightly), as well as "Playing Your Song", though that tune sounds overly generic by Hole's standards. For the most part, Celebrity Skin
focuses on adding a pop sensibility and tenderness to the band's songwriting, providing a suprisingly great outcome.
One can't help but to sing along to Courtney Love's loud vocals on "Awful", presenting a viciously addictive hook that leaves listeners wanting to come back for more. Love's naive lyrics suit the song incredibly well, as she really showcases her development as a songwriter. The hit single "Malibu" (based on Kurt Cobain's stay at a rehab clinic in that same California town) and the gentle "Hit So Hard" pack a strong (which is really more soft than strong) punch, and Love's whispering voice and honest vocals on "Dying" truly compliment a more than solid performance by a stellar rhythm section. Courtney once again takes inspiration from the Fleetwood Mac and The Byrds' book here and it pays off in moments such as the poppy and laidback "Heaven Tonight" and "Boys On The Radio" (on "Heaven Tonight" her line "Here comes the sun in the form of a girl" can be seen as really corny or really pretty - I normally pick the latter). Unfortunately, Celebrity Skin
is not a perfect album. The aforementioned "Playing Your Song" is relatively standard and insipid, while "Northern Star" doesn't really have a variation beyond the gentle but also unmemorable acoustic verses. The closer "Petals" (one of the 5 tunes written partly by Billy Corgan) slightly resembles The Smashing Pumpkins but it is not as memorable as it tries to be.
The slight missteps found here don't affect the obvious quality that Celebrity Skin
presents, though. Hole's small change in musical direction brings to the table a newfound creative freedom and sonic diversity that perhaps lacked an otherwise equally great Live Through This
. In many ways, Celebrity Skin
was and still is Courtney Love's brainchild. In recent years she's called Hole's debut "a great representation of our life back then but really unlistenable now". She wanted Hole to change gears and go softer after the grunge era started to fade in popularity. Her appreciation for 70's pop rock was the motivation necessary behind Celebrity Skin
. And it honestly paid off. The album doesn't ditch the hard hitting "Seattle sound" entirely but it adds a pop touch that provides some great results. It truly is a shame to see so many people refusing to give Hole a fair chance just because of the controversy that, by accident or not, seems to surround Courtney. It's a shame because they produced some excellent albums during that period. And Celebrity Skin
just may be the best they've done. You can thank Courtney Love for that.