Courtney Love is no healer — of herself or anyone else. And that’s why, despite the nose job, boob lift, designer gowns, and kissy-poo swanning down red carpets, she’s no pop star. She’s incapable of telling us that everything’s gonna be all right. But when it comes to testifying to how everything’s totally, unbearably, exhilaratingly fucked-up beyond despair, she has few peers. And that’s why she’s a rock star.
But Love hasn’t shown much interest in her best role during the past several years. She has pursued celebrity via supporting gigs in tepid films (Man on the Moon, 200 Cigarettes,Trapped) and by cavorting like a Banger sister with Winona Ryder, et al. There’s the tawdry legal battle over her late husband’s legacy. The public spitting match with producer/ex-boyfriend Jim Barber. And the continuing drug problems– daughter Frances Bean was taken into custody after Mom overdosed in front of her.
So by all rights, America’s Sweetheart (her first release since Hole’s 2002 dissolution) should be a pathetic mess, and at times, it is. But it’s also a jaw-dropping act of artistic will and a fiery, proper follow-up to 1994’sLive Through This. While that record chronicled Love’s travails in the ’80s and ’90s underground alt-punk, tragic-flannel subculture that made her rich and famous, this album assails the ’90s and ’00s Hollywood shit pile that’s been burying the singer alive. It’s a subject she tried to finesse on Hole’s 1998 farewell album,Celebrity Skin, which wanted to take you on a sunny, hopeful cruise down the Malibu coast, with Love pretending to be Stevie Nicks in a tube top, while Billy Corgan did the modern-rock soft-shoe.
But with America’s Sweetheart, there’s no pussyfooting around. Love meets you at LAX, tosses you into the back of a limo, blacks out the lights, and before you hit LaCienega and Fairfax, it’s on. The squalling, grind-house single “Mono” is essentially an update of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”: the sound of a done-it-all rocker suckering you into coveting her unspeakable existence. Like Iggy, Love’s had it in the ear before, and as the guitars crank, she gives you an earful: “Rock is dead”; you “can’t make a hooker come”; and God owes her a great song so she can show all these “brilliant boys”who’s boss. She sneers rhetorically, “Did ya miss me?!” The bitch is back.
And she’s just getting revved up. “But Julian, I’m a Little Bit Older Than You” is a hilariously horny rant about the fashion-conscious garage-rock scene (that should be subtitled “Stalking the Strokes”). Love vows to out-rock the cooler-than-thou swish kids — and succeeds — chanting “Gabba-gabba baby” and “Shut up!” until there’s a puddle of sweat on the floorboards. The musicians and producers who drive her here and elsewhere are a random crew: Barber, Pink- and Christina Aguilera-enabling Linda Perry, former Hole drummers Patty Schemel and Samantha Maloney, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey sideman Joe Gore, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, among others. But they do a specific job –giving Love a rugged, stable platform.
Gradually, the Day of the Locust hell ride slows. And on a pair of brutally earnest mid-tempo anthems — “Hold On to Me” and “Sunset Strip” (cowritten by Perry) –the album goes after your heart for real. On the former, Love offers herself up as shelter (“I am the center of the universe!”), but ends up shivering alone. The latter jangles, builds, and roars, cresting at the four-minute mark, when she finally unveils the million-dollar question: “Were you jerking off to her / Or were you jerking off to me?” Like all pop culture, Love always turns on you, and before long, the devil’s driving the car, he’s drunk, and she “don’t care which of you he fucks up.” Crying over Kurt, she air-guitars to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” then solicits some wastoid in a Led Zep T-shirt.
At daybreak, there’s a power ballad as a reward for those who survive, but it’s really an ultimatum. This rock star takes her cut up-front. She’ll make you a punch line, then beg for your faith. She’ll bleed for your sins, but only when it suits her. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Dorothy Parker of the Celebrities Uncensored era.