Release Date: September 08, 1998
This review was originally published in the October 1998 issue of Spin. On the occasion of our list of best alt-rock songs of 1998, we’re republishing it here.
After four years, the girl with the Most-Talked-About tiara goes on record. I’m not counting the galaxy of interviews, fashion spreads, film strips, soundbite ops, and stray performances—the ephemera of her incarnation as the Queen of All Media. She can play that way till the stars come loose from their moorings, and it’s still all bullshit; whatever La Courtney or Le Public thinks, it’s not her job even to mean what she says. However engaging she is, she’s not our friend, or our enemy, but our melody maker. Love’s job is to musically engage our hormonal desperation and set up a few super-cranial light bulbs and maybe add another record to the arcana of great ‘90s music. All that other stuff is just moonlighting.
Nonetheless, job skills fade and distraction happens; by the time Courtney started channeling Stevie Nicks it seemed unlikely the band—and the rock star Love—could escape becoming a historical conversation piece. Instead, Celebrity Skin strolls shinily into the historical conversation. It’s a record filled with quotation and reference, backtalk and revision. But it doesn’t enter the discussion as bad bitch of the fight club or in the name of Oasis-esque historicizing. It just sits down at the table and sets to conversating with the boys on the radio, taking as an assumption that’s where the action is. A cohort of girl culture will call this sleeping with the enemy. Maybe so. Maybe so what; there are too many great songs, and this is a magnificent pop record.
“Pop” is the crucial term: Celebrity Skin carries the conversation beyond the traditional postpunk loop of raw power and pretty poison, dirty glam and curdled self-loathing. These things all figure. But Love manages also to chat up early pop star Shakespeare and latter-day saint Stephen Malkmus, hi-cred novelist Denis Johnson, and lo-life Art Alexakis; the title off-quotes Burt Bacharach. Twice.
Still, pop isn’t a reference game; it’s a way of life on which the record bets everything. Celebrity Skin is likely to piss off anyone still indulging in the fantasy of Courtney as punk Goddess/feminist Fury; if you want the howl and the open wound, you’ll have to dredge Puget Sound. But that’s not where this record is calling from; it dials in from a more southern Pacific. After various production peregrinations, Michael Beinhorn ends up finding a bastard mix of sweetness and weight: ice cream grunge, with a shock of fab guitar parts from Eric Erlandson plus a gang of new-wave synthesizers. Most of the music was written by the band, with free advice from a Smashing Pumpkin (five tracks) and help from both a Go-Go and a Blinker the Star on “Reasons to Be Beautiful.” In exchange for the astonishing consistency of mood that made Live Through This a breakwater of ‘90s rock, Celebrity Skin produces a cataract of great songs, spectacularly polished.
But if, in true pop fashion, the album is obsessed with the glittery appeal of sonic surfaces, it only matches the parallel fixation on the erotic, deceptive allure of bodily surfaces. In that regard, from lyrics to love-me production, Celebrity Skin is an L.A. record. And, like Courtney the Culture Star, the record sells the prettiness it often stands against. That is, the album knows exactly how it’s fucked-up and makes music out of the mess. I keep forgetting whether that’s hypocrisy or rock’n’roll.
Most obviously, the album is Angeleno in its setting, from the razory “Celebrity Skin” (“hooker/waitress/model/actress—oh just go nameless”) to the despairing charmer “Malibu,” a beach-town companion to Everclear’s “Santa Monica.” No less SoCal are the star’s insider status in the cult of the image and the way her vocals have modulated from the former riveting roar into a creamy cry, luxurious and yearning.
But for all that, Celebrity Skin isn’t just Fleetwood Mackin.’ Less wasted on decadence, the record is better at mapping out metaphysics of pop music and youth: the conspiracy of pure appearance, temporariness, and beauty, all of which we will betray and be betrayed by in turn. In the mirror of every brilliant surface is the terror of its decay. On the album-closing “Petals,” the incessant flower imagery of Live Through This has turned toward autumn: “I miss the sweet boys in the summer of their youth… all the darling buds of May / They fall with no sound, they carry you down.” And the music descends and descends a sickly slope, the pretty guitars falling out of tune.
The same rotting haunts the center of “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” the best song of 1998. The song’s architecture gleams like a postmodern-gothic Hotel California: “Miles and miles of perfect skin / I swear I do I fit right in,” says Love in a mantra she falls into and forgets, substituting “Miles and miles of perfect sin.” And suddenly everything is wrong, as she watches the image corrode: “So pretty oh summer babe we’ll never know / And faded like a rose.” But it’s not just more flowery talk. This song is her version of total war, lining up the record’s litany of concerns and turning them in on herself. By the time she reaches “everything I am will be bought and sold,” mere autobiography threatens to overrun everything.
There’s probably no performer in the world so doomed to autobiography as Courtney Love, and it’s a fate she’s had a fair part in sealing. But this trap catches us as much as her, and some of Celebrity Skin’s most delirious moments come when we are freed from having to hear the album as a personal profile. “Heaven Tonight” is adorable enough to have been temporarily titled “The Pony Song”: “Here comes a sun in the form of a girl / She’s the finest sweetest thing in the world,” she burbles over a chorus-happy arpeggio. When the Duran Duran synths kick in “Rio”-style, there’s nothing to do but smile: a love song.
That’s not to suggest the album is bestest lightest. Nonetheless, it only falters when it blows off prettiness altogether: “Use Once and Destroy” hang on a riff only Beavis and Butt-head could love, and “Playing Your Song” stays diminutive, a temper in a teapot. But that’s it. Everything else is the good shit, from the candy-coated darkness of “Boys on the Radio” (an electrifying version of an Unplugged classic: double your sugar! double your coma!) to the teen-spirited outrage of “Awful” (“It was punk / Yeah it was perfect / Now it’s awful”).
The challenge for Celebrity Skin is whether it can be heard above the din, the life stories and public displays of affliction. But like all great records, it’s at its best when it attempts the impossible task of swallowing all that noise. At the end of “Reasons To Be Beautiful,” rather than turning away from the tell-all, the singer puts her back into it until the song trasmutes into an answer to her husband’s suicide note, talking back to the lost summer: “When the fire goes out / You better learn to fake,” she sings, knowing the last say counts for nothing and having it anyway. “It’s better to rise than fade away,” she promises, as if all pop stars weren’t doomed to do both.