It’s ‘Live Through This’ that is almost universally regarded as Hole’s magnum opus; their most visceral display of anger, longing and despair. ‘Live Through This’ does indeed represent the unquestionable highpoint of Love’s musical output, but it’s successor ‘Celebrity Skin’ is far too often overlooked for it’s similarly great exploration of such themes, just this time over more commercially accessible sounds. The release of ‘Live Through This’ just one week after the suicide of Kurt Cobain meant that the two events were eternally inseparable. But it’s ‘Celebrity Skin’ that was Love’s first album written in the wake of the tragic death and, it makes for some of the most compelling and affecting lyricism of her career.
Many artists sing of grief, but few explore it so completely as ‘Celebrity Skin’. Hole’s third studio album isn’t just about the death of love, but about how love can, in and of itself, be a death sentence. It’s an album about being frozen in time by all-consuming loss and watching the people around you move on and knowing that those same people are relying on you to move on too. ‘Celebrity Skin’ was written between 1997 and ’98; 3-4 years after Cobain’s death. In that time Love gained a newfound lucidity; but that only sought to make her nihilistic musings all the more alarming; they are not the product of someone in the throws of newfound grief, but of someone who has taken time to heal as best they can and now sees the world with damning clarity.
It’s hard to listen to ‘Celebrity Skin’ and not feel deeply sorry for Love. Love never tries on the album to portray herself as a victim – such would be antithetical to everything that makes her her – but her third studio album is the sound of someone victimized by the world; victimized by widowhood, victimized by the industry, victimized even by Cobain’s ex band mates; who she felt sold-out her late husband’s discography. “They rob the souls of girls like you” she warns up-and-coming female artist on ‘Awful’, ‘Boys on the Radio’ meanwhile, contrasts the larger-than-life status taken up by music’s biggest stars and the reality of how the life is sucked out of them by the industry: “They crash and burn / They fold and fade so slow”.
Love mined the depths of despair aplenty on ‘Live Through This’, but even at her lowest (think of her screaming “I want my baby / Where is the baby” on ‘I Think That I Would Die’) there was always a sharp focus to her rage; it was this manifesto-like anger that made ‘Live Through This’ a classic. However, at it’s darkest moments ‘Celebrity Skin’ showcases Love more thoroughly broken than she ever presented herself before. ‘Dying’ is a breath-takingly candid and fully-realised exploration of grief. “now I know that love is dead”, Courtney sings, “you’ve come to bury me”, but despite seemingly realising the hopelessness of her situation, she’s left begging for the unattainable: “I’m dying, I’m dying, please / I want to, I need to be / Under your skin”. ‘Dying’ comes immediately after the even blunter, and seemingly self-referential, ‘Reasons to Be Beautiful’, which opens with one hell of a verse: “Love hangs herself / With the bed sheets in her cell / Threw myself on fires for you / Ten good reasons to stay alive / Ten good reasons that I can’t find”.
What makes ‘Celebrity Skin’ so heart-breaking, is it’s overarching sense of inevitability; the sense that the worst outcome was always guaranteed to occur. On ‘Malibu’ – which is about Cobain’s stint in rehab – Love makes clear that despite her, and his, best attempts at recovery, it’s simply not enough: “Don’t lay down and die” she begs, seemingly aware of the helplessness of her pleading. “I went down to rescue you” she sings later, but seems well aware that doing so is more likely to drag her down, rather than lift anyone else up. On ‘Northern Star’ she sums up this hopelessness most succinctly: “I wait, staring at the Northern Star / I’m afraid it won’t lead you very far”.
Behind introspective musings, the righteous and empowered anger that Hole are known for is never far behind. Closer ‘Petals’ contains the album’s most quintessential Hole one-liner (“this world is a whore”) and ‘Playing Your Song’ is a brutally scathing attack on the surviving Nirvana bandmates who Love felt sold out Cobain’s old work (“Now they’re playing your song /….It’s just so mean and cruel / They sold you out”).
‘Celebrity Skin’ however, allows, albeit not for very long, moments of hope and reprieve that were absent on Love’s previous work. ‘Heaven Tonight’ is perhaps the happiest song Love has ever put her name to; an ode to her daughter Frances, who she describes as “the sun in the form of a girl”. “I can’t believe that I could be happy / Summer will come again” sings Love; with the benefit of distance, and having escaped the immediacy of loss. It’s this ultimately that makes ‘Celebrity Skin’ a great record; it finds Love with a clarity of vision and outlook sharper than ever before; it makes the hopeful moments all they more believable and the angst-filled moments of longing all the more harrowing and disturbing.
Best Tracks: ‘Malibu’, ‘Dying’, ‘Boys On The Radio’, ‘Petals’, ‘Awful’, ‘Reasons to be Beautiful’, ‘Playing Your Song’