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Love Adds Glow to 'Skin'

POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

**** HOLE, "Celebrity Skin," DGC

September 06, 1998|Robert Hilburn

Fasten your seat belt. This album is one wild emotional ride, a work that is sure to be one of the most dissected and debated collections of the year.

After the punk-minded snarl of 1994's "Live Through This," the gloriously melodic, pop-rock sheen of the best moments in this follow-up collection are going to leave lots of Hole fans puzzled. Fully a half-dozen songs have the delectable spirit and glow that will make you reach over and turn the volume way up every time they come on the radio.

Not exactly what you would expect from the former goddess of punk-grunge.

But don't be misled.

Courtney Love may be embracing power pop, but she hasn't gone soft. Versace gown and all, she's still got a fiery rock 'n' roll heart.

Overflowing with commentary and bite, this is a far more complex work than the invigorating, mainstream coating would lead you to believe. It is the most ambitious and quite possibly the most revealing album Love has made.

"Celebrity Skin" is a story of survival in which Love shifts in various songs between all sorts of viewpoints--a widow and a lover, a musician and a fan, a dreamer and a doubter. There are moments of mourning and celebration, anger and surrender--times when she lashes out at others and times when she taunts herself.

Though her Hole mates (especially guitarist Eric Erlandson) and the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan contributed most of the music, Love wrote the lyrics.

In the title song, one of rock's most vain and contradictory forces has fun with her own persona. That's not hard for a lightning rod for controversy. In the song, she says, "I'm all I wanna be / A walking study in demonology."

Elsewhere, in "Reasons to Be Beautiful," Love even gives us her version (plastic surgery and all) of the adage that happiness is the best revenge. Again apparently speaking about Hollywood, she quips: "Miles and miles of perfect skin / I swear I do, I fit right in."

At the album's poignant core, however, Love confronts the legacy of her late husband Kurt Cobain, and the loss of a generation's dreams.

Don't expect this free-wheeling talent to express herself in tidy narratives. She's too impulsive a lyricist for that. But there are times when she speaks with an unmistakable directness.

In his suicide note, Cobain quoted a famous line from a Neil Young song, "It's better to burn out than to fade away."

Midway through "Celebrity Skin," Love gives her response: "It's better to rise than to fade away."

At that moment, she acknowledges the trauma of Cobain's death and simultaneously rejects the romanticism of the tragic rock star life--one that she once seemed as caught up in as her husband.

In "Playing Your Song," she both decries Cobain's failure to fulfill his potential and strikes out at the commercialization of the grunge movement: "And oh, I had to tell them you were gone / I had to tell them they were wrong / And now they're playing your song."

Through the various mood swings, Love seems fueled by a faith in the power of music to inspire and comfort. That need for comfort in her own life may be why Love has turned from the harshness of punk to the uplifting power pop style that meant so much to her as a youngster.

The anthem-like, feel-good tone of key tracks echoes everything from the cocky exuberance of such '70s "bad-girl" groups as the Runaways to a more formal pop-rock romanticism in the tradition of bands such as Fleetwood Mac and Cheap Trick.

"Celebrity Skin" isn't a perfect album. Love is too impatient an artist to finely craft songs the way our most disciplined artists do. You also may need to know about Love's own history to make the most affecting numbers work lyrically. And, a couple of the numbers feel sluggish next to the sheer exuberance of such tunes as "Awful" and "Hit So Hard."

Yet there is a richness of ambition and passion running through "Celebrity Skin" that makes it one of the few essential pop packages of the year.

From the intimacy of "Northern Star," which sounds like a moment of closure involving one love, to the soaring "Heaven Tonight," which welcomes a new love, this is music that not only rejects cynicism as the way to deal with broken dreams but also has the audacity to urge you to close your eyes and reach for your dreams again.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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