Saturday, 31 July 2021


”I’m Glad I Came Here…”

If Grunge was about reuniting Punk with rock, Hole played a characteristic twist on things. They set the two against one another, and so sounded like an arms race between the anti-social and self-loathing, creating music that was simultaneously furiously assertive and absolutely self-destructive. Tony Wilson famously said that Joy Division had moved music on, from Punk’s credo of “fuck you” to “I’m fucked”. Hole upped the ante with “fuck you, I’m fucked.” A fairly typical lyrical sentiment was “here you are just as ugly as me.”

Albums can split into tracks like libraries divide into sections - the cheery up-tempo one here, the melancholic ballad over there, and so on. Hole just curdled it all into one tangy taste. And with Courtney Love’s lyrics even the metaphors were fucked up, tangling, contorting, turning in on themselves. (“I love him so much it just turns to hate/ I fake it so much I am beyond fake.” Or “If you live through this with me/ I swear I will die for you”) She once said “whenever I write about something I end up writing about something else.”

‘Celebrity Skin’, their third album came out in 1998 and was in part “dedicated to all the stolen water of Los Angeles”, with an accompanying picture of the Department of Water and Power. The title track opened, riffing on the ruined decadence theme of classic films such as ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, nicknamed “hag horrors” by a crassly cynical marketing machine. (“Wilted and faded, somewhere in Hollywood.”)

But the dominant image is of an LA all surface and superficiality - “Miles and miles of perfect skin/ I swear I do, I fit right in.” (The title comes from a cheap porn mag that went in for paparazzi celebrity shots.) It conjures up images of endless boulevards and avenues, all interchangeable, each only leading to more of the same. Populated by equally interchangeable people, plastic surgeried into sameness, where even those not in movies pass through an arbitrary series or roles. (“Hooker, waitress, model, actress/Oh, just go nameless.”) Guitarist Eric Erlandson confirmed “We used this great hollow city as inspiration for the album.”

With the opening line "oh make me over” it’s in many ways a post-break-up album. And like break-up albums immemorial, it’s full of regret for what’s passed (“It’s the emptiness that’s all you have left”) mixed with the desire to create a new identity for yourself.

And that break-up was in part with Punk. Perhaps not surprisingly after a four-year gap, the new album had a new sound. Well, not just one. It’s generally dubbed ‘alternative rock’, most likely because that’s a tag so elastic it can stretch as wide as anyone might need it to. Which is handy. The transition between the intense, strident acoustic ‘Northern Star’ to the FM/ West Coast sound of ‘Boys On the Radio’ is a particularly memorable leap, but really the album’s full of such moments. The cumulative effect of which is, to borrow a lyric, “hit so hard/ I saw stars.”

But let’s back up… Hole with a West Coast sound? Yes, really. Punk is perhaps at its most cliched with the “we won’t sell out” song, which mostly means “we will never change the record.” On the second track, ’Awful’, they launched into a now-familiar diatribe against Grunge being prettified and presented as mainstream rock. (“It was Punk/ Yeah it was perfect, now it's awful.”) Except it’s pointedly given the mainstream rock sound it ostensibly criticises.

Even with the previous release, Punk purists had been shouting “sell out!” at gigs. And to respond by goading her critics even further, to introduce more of a mainstream rock sound for punkish reasons, seems characteristically Courtney. Ben Hewitt in The Quietus called it “magnificently defiant, like someone raising a middle finger clad in swanky velvet gloves.”

“Have you ever felt so used up as this?”, she asked on her most inspired release. On a later track she states “when the fire goes out you better learn to fake”. And indeed this went on to become their best-selling album.

”All That’s Cold and Cruel”

That dedication continues “…and to anyone who ever drowned,” and the album’s also illustrated by Paul Abert Stick’s painting ‘Ophelia Drowning’. It’s about as lyrically consistent as it is musically varied, with themes and images constantly recurring shaken into different forms. Throughout opposites are juxtaposed, fire/water (even making it onto the cover), but also sweetness/sugarlessness and numerous others.

But most of all surface is contrasted with depth. Except here depth, even when you get it, is only for sinking into. (“Our love is quicksand/ So easy to drown.”) Proceedings turn into a tails-or-tails choice between surface and drowning, between un-life and death, between a headstone and a hard place.

And to understand that, we should remember something about this break-up. When Love sings “I know that you don’t love me any more”, her ex does have a good excuse for that. To try to make a twist out of something everybody knows very well, Kurt Cobain’s suicide had happened just before the previous album was released. So everyone had been waiting four years to hear Love’s reaction. And there is something creepily voyeuristic about all that, as if we’re keen to find out what use she’ll make of such great material.

She would often deflect this by insisting his death didn’t feature at all. And it’s true, none of the previous recordings had come in sunny side up. She’d started wishing she could die on the opening track of the first album. And the title track of the predecessor, ‘Live Through This’, was in memory of Black Flag’s roadie Joe Cole. Yet perhaps that just played up the problem. Simon Reynolds once described her lyrical style as “emotional nudism”. So this type of material, it really was just up her street. The difficult truth is that, however ghoulish it might be, all this did lead to the band’s greatest album, the one Love was born to make.

All of which Love took head on, audaciously and laceratingly. “You want a piece of me?” she spits on the opening track, “Well I’m not selling cheap.” ’Dying’ opened with the audience-confronting line “see the cripple dance”. ’Petals’ featured a violating stripping away (“Tear the petals off of you/ And make you tell the truth”), reprising a lyric from the last album. As if the whole point of the thing was for her to get her scars on show. Underlying the whole thing, Courtney’s stage surname, punned on throughout, started life as her stripper name.

The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Gone Again’ may bookend musical reactions to bereavement. A jolt of stricken grief against a redemptive coming to terms. Given the time distance from the moment, we might expect from Love something closer to Smith’s. In fact it covers just about every point between, and including, the two.

So there’s anger (“How are you so burnt when you’re barely on fire?”), guilt at failing to prevent his death (“Put me up above the boy/ The one I love I should destroy”), survivor guilt (“I want what’s yours/ Oh I’d give anything/ And I’ll take the pain”), post-relationship bitterness (“And now I understand/ You leave with everything”), no-I’m-leaving-you wilful defiance (“No loneliness, no misery is worth you”) - and more. Quite a lot more, in fact.

And isn’t that how it is? When something momentous happens in your life, a hundred contradictory reactions collide in your head. So ‘Celebrity Skin’ captures them all, not resolving or even cataloguing them so much as externalising them. It’s not the sound of of someone feeling at times angry, at times despairing, at times redemptive. It’s feeling angry and despairing and redemptive, a dizzying whirlygig of emotions and images. The mix may ebb and flow, but each remains in the mix. Just when you think how have an image pegged to a symbol or a track to a theme, something else will appear to throw you off balance.

All of which are typical reactions to bereavement by suicide, about which there’s presumably been psychological studies. Yet because all this happened so much in public there can’t help but be an extra element…

Blaming suicides for suicide is like being one of those right-wing shock-jocks who blame poverty on the poor. Yet at the same time there’s a Romantic fixation with dying young, with screwing your life up to the ultimate degree made as some kind of social statement. People talk of That Stupid Club (which may even have got its name from Cobain) like its some exclusive hip establishment you should be clamouring to get into.

Whereas Love famously told Cobain’s fans to chant “asshole” at him for quitting before break time, commenting (fairly astutely) “so fucking what? - then don't be a rock star.” And this appears on the album too, Courtney knocking down Kurt the Idol of Easeful Death - “I had to tell them you were gone/ I had to tell them you were wrong”. Riffing on his Neil Young-quoting suicide note (“it’s better to burn out that fade away”) she countered “It’s better to rise than fade away”.

”Get Well Soon”

If LA dominates the album, even its sprawl can’t encompass the whole of it. The dark and brooding ‘Northern Star’ seems set in Seattle (or at least Washington state), as a kind of opposite pole. The refrain “run to the pines” recalls the folk standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ (also known as ‘In the Pines’), often played by Nirvana. But of course its depth is again that of the grave. (“Praying to the wound that swallows / All that's cold and cruel.”) This reinforces the binary.

But the one point that things break from that system is where a third place is referenced. And it gives the title to the single, ’Malibu’. (Disclaimer: Three singles were released in total. But this is the one which sounds like the single.)

The sea is the only non-stagnant water on the album (“Down by the sea is where you drown your scars”). While the titular light on ’Northern Star’ got you nowhere except lost, here multiple stars morph into angels. The second-person address seems (as ever) to slip between her talking to Kurt and to herself. But the overall sense is one of escape - “And the sun goes down/ I watch you slip away/ And the sun goes down/ I walk into the waves.”

Referring to the most redemptive Hole album might be like naming the most danceable Leonard Cohen album or Von Stroheim film made most in colour. But it remains the case. “Can you stand up,” Love rails, “or will you just fall down?” It’s a classic Punk taunt, demanding inner strength and castigating those who lack it. But like all such taunts, the question rebounds on the questioner.

And the answer we got back was yes. But there’s little redeeming about this, no pines-and-sea version of “hello trees, hello flowers”. Ultimately the album may not decide life is worth the living so much as describe survival as a kind of reflex action, the way you reach out when you fall. As Dorothy Parker said many years before - “might as well live.”

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