Love Connection

Why the current, slick Courtney Love actually rings truer than the disheveled baby doll of the past

In fairness, Love's personality makeover is pretty consistent with rock's history of reinvention. Bob Dylan transformed himself from a Woody Guthrie clone into an existential rock poet and then a country squire, all within the space of about six years. And The Beatles willingly discarded their black leather for matching suits when it meant the possibility of a wider audience.

If anything, the evidence suggests that the raw Love heard on early Hole records like 1990's The First Session and 1991's Pretty on the Inside was the fake, and the polished Go-Go's wanna-be heard on the recent Celebrity Skin is actually much closer to Love's true impulses. It's a sellout story in reverse. Love always liked pretty, well-crafted music, but her demographic smarts told her that to make it in the late-'80s indie-rock scene, she had to come on all scabrous and messy. She admitted as much in her 1994 Spin interview, when she talked about Pretty on the Inside.

"That record was me posing in a lot of ways," she said. "It was the truth, but it was also me catching up with all my hip peers who'd gone all indie on me, and who made fun of me for liking R.E.M. and the Smiths." She went on to say that she'd experienced the scuzzy punk-rock lifestyle when she was 17, adding, "I hated it."

Her greatest inspirations were not punks, but more romantic types like Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen) and Stevie Nicks. Although she kept her Nicks fixation pretty well hidden until 1996, when Hole covered "Gold Dust Woman," it does sneak into Pretty on the Inside's "Starbelly," in which a snippet of Nicks' "Rhiannon" briefly cuts into the mix.

Celebrity Skin isn't a complete triumph, probably because Love was still too close to her new Hollywood lifestyle to know exactly what she wanted to say about it. In fact, she struggled with extreme writer's block for at least a couple of years, until Billy Corgan came aboard and jump-started the band's creative process.

But if the record is too much bland craftsmanship and not enough clear expression, when it works, it works like gangbusters. The shimmering "Malibu" was the hit single that should have been, a lustrous mix of electric and acoustic guitars (thanks to the underrated Eric Erlandson) and a Love lyric that strikes the right note between sunny optimism and world-weariness. At moments like that, Love fulfills all those old California-rock fantasies she's carried on since her reform-school days. And at moments like that, you can almost believe that Love, for once, isn't thinking about the demographic implications of her actions.

Hole is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 2, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Queens of the Stone Age. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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