Courtney Love is nothing if not self-aware. So it makes sense that she titled her first post-Hollywood album Celebrity Skin, because this album documents the period in which Love's celebrity--and infamy--grew from mere distraction to overrriding theme.
When Love's late husband Kurt Cobain was confronted with the same kind of problematic icon status, he reacted with In Utero, a tortured batch of songs reflecting his emotional and physical distress. But Love was always built for this kind of fame. She sought it out, and she obviously revels in it. Some songwriters prefer to be anonymous and invisible, to be able to observe others. For them, fame means a loss of the freedom to sit back and observe, and a subsequent loss of material.
Love was never like that. She's always been fascinated by herself above all else. She always considered herself pretty on the inside, and refused to rest until she could afford to make herself pretty on the outside, too.
So, while she's taking some expected knocks for Celebrity Skin's slick, mammoth production, the result doesn't really feel like a sellout. It actually sounds like the immaculately crafted album this Fleetwood Mac fan always wanted to make, but couldn't because she was too conscious of indie-rock peer pressure.
When the album-opening title song kicks into its acoustic-guitar-coated, candy-pop chorus, it's actually a thrill to hear that voice that we've come to associate with belligerence seducing us with a moment of pure, car-radio pleasure.
But if Love's new surgically enhanced pop suits her sunny mindset, it doesn't always suit her voice so well. "Awful" is an irresistible rocking confection, but in making her voice sound sweet enough for the song, Love ends up sounding disembodied and disengaged, positively generic in a way that this unabashed loudmouth never has before.
Another problem is that, much as she appreciates a well-crafted hook, Love has never been a great power as a melodist. She's generally relied on others to provide musical starting points for her lyrics. On Celebrity Skin, the most tuneful songs--like the luscious "Malibu"--are generally the ones that Billy Corgan helped with, which is hardly a good sign for someone making their California pop move.
When the hooks start to thin out around the middle of the album, you start focusing more on the lyrics, which are as self-aware as usual, but also seem to lean on the kind of phony candor that defines Love's self-serving interviews. Throughout the album, Love's timbre suggests that she's laying her soul on the table, but upon close inspection, her repetitious hieroglyphics start to crumble. She hasn't yet figured out what she wants to say about her new celebrity life, so she goes around in circles, chasing played-out metaphors. For example, in her struggle to convey the glittery surface of Tinseltown, she wears out "candy" and "sugar" references the way Bruce Springsteen used to do with cars.
When the crunchy guitars meet a solid tune--as with guitarist Eric Erlandson's "La Bamba" cop, "Heaven Tonight"--Love's frustrating rope-a-dope lyrics cease to be a problem. But the overall effect is glossy but somewhat empty, like the Hollywood she seems so ambivalent about. While Celebrity Skin aims for the grandeur of a polished blood-and-guts confessional like Rumours, it ends up feeling more like Mirage.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
If any decent group is more than the sum of its parts, then it's easy to see why the solo album is usually the point at which most artists expose their weaknesses and limitations.
That's why it's been a welcome surprise to find that both Fugees solo albums--Wyclef Jean's The Carnival and singer Lauryn Hill's new The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill--are richer and more revealing than the group's efforts. While Jean used his solo album as a panoramic showcase for his production skills, Hill digs deep into personal experience and unleashes her largely ignored brilliance as a vocal arranger.
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Even without Jean behind the board, Hill's solid feel for classic soul and reggae grooves is apparent. As with the Fugees' The Score and Jean's solo album, Miseducation occupies a rarefied zone that is neither hip-hop nor R&B, but some distinctive combination of the two, as Hill raps and sings with equal aplomb. On "Forgive Them Father," Hill sounds like a female Stevie Wonder, applying gospel wisdom to the confusing secular world. On "Every Ghetto, Every City," she pushes the connection further, blatantly echoing the joyous nostalgia of Wonder's "I Wish" with her own set of childhood memories, and sadly hinting that the world has changed for the worse since those days.
Ultimately, though, Hill's closest vocal prototype is Gladys Knight, with whom Hill shares a gritty authority that imbues even her most vulnerable moments with resilience and strength. You can detect the shadows of Knight when she takes aim at out-of-touch pop stars with "Superstar" (a takeoff on The Doors' "Light My Fire"), when she defends her decision to have a child on the deeply felt "To Zion," and, most vividly, when she implores her man to give her reciprocity on "Ex-Factor."
Strong as Hill's own material is, possibly the most revealing moment on Miseducation comes from an unlisted throwaway near the end. Hill remolds Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" as a funky midtempo soul number. It's a reminder that Hill is every bit as quirky as she is smart, that she has catholic tastes, and that she's not afraid to take inspiration from every imaginable part of the pop spectrum.