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Love on the Rocks

 

Courtney Love: America's Sweetheart

Virgin, 2004

Rating: 2.6

 

 

Posted: February 27, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When we discuss Courtney Love's debut solo album -- her first release since 1998's Celebrity Skin, by her now-defunct band Hole -- it's only fair to focus solely on the merits of the music, right? It shouldn't matter to us that Love is famous these days mostly for being famous, more than for her very sporadic musical and acting careers; that she's spent the last decade continually reminding us of her presence, even when there wasn't an album or movie to promote. Right?

Well, in a perfect world, sure. But precisely because her media presence has been out of all proportion to both her productivity and (let's face it) her creative output, an album from Love in 2004 -- a solo album, no less, always taken as an indicator of an artist's true talent, perspective and ambition -- can't help but carry with it that ages-old subtext: Is she worth the hype? And if you buy that she once was, is she still relevant?

In the case of America's Sweetheart, though, it's impossible to separate the music from the artist's blonde ambition for an even more concrete reason: Even if you slipped the album into your player without the slightest preconceived notion of who Courtney Love is or was, Sweetheart wouldn't be able to help but strike you as a document of sheer desperation, of a frantic need for approval. Worse, it's the audible sound of a talent in serious decline.

Both of those facts are apparent in the bracing opener "Mono," a hard-charging guitar rocker so eager to trigger the fist-pumping gene that it trips over its processed guitars, much as Love herself tumbles awkwardly through her own lyrics, dropping key words (at least according to the lyric sheet, which often comically bears little to no resemblance to the songs it documents) in her mad rush to spit out as much grrrl-on-top attitude as her lungs can produce. And it doesn't help that what we can decipher of the lyrics combusts into puffery upon contact with air: "Three chords in your pocket tonight / Are you the one / To bring my punk rock back?" she asks without apparent irony, while attempting to nick the working-girl growl Robin Johnson hiccupped on "Damn Dog" from the soundtrack to the forgotten 1980 film Times Square.

The appallingly messy "But Julian, I'm a Little Bit Older Than You" likewise confuses a lack of finesse for passion, with Love riding herd over a hyperactive melee of calculated rock propulsion. It's clear she's obviously aiming to re-appropriate the rock 'n' roll mojo she evidently believes is currently embodied by the Strokes (the Julian of the title being head Stroker Julian Casablancas, who is in fact more than a decade younger than Love, and who hopefully isn't entertaining any Mrs. Robinson-style fantasies).

Love seeks to channel the essence of punk's raw power by lyrically referencing both the Ramones ("Gabba Gabba Hey!") and the Clash ("I see Paris I see France, I hear London calling"). She also acknowledges both her public image and her descending place in rock's pecking order in one fell swoop: "I'm overrated, desecrated / Still somehow illuminated / Know I've got a screw loose / Please meet me in the bedroom / I know you're dangerous, what a punk / You would never sell out / Just like I did Playboy / That was art, it didn't count!" It's an extended three-minute come-on to not just the singer of an over-regarded rock band, but all of rock itself. Simultaneously, it's an attempt to reposition Love's media profile as an out-of-control addict/maniac as loveable quirkiness, her sexually voracious pose as up-to-date, streetwise adoration ("1-800-He's so fine").

Love definitely sticks to the time-worn formula of front-loading an album with the best (or in this case, most compelling-sounding) tracks, following up those opening firecrackers with the radio-ready power ballad "Hold On To Me," whose calculated chord progression and lowest-common-denominator chorus completely negate the hint of punk credibility in Love's ragged yowl; and "Sunset Strip," an ode to self-love tropes ("Tonight I can fly," "I've got no place left to climb / And I know no tomorrow") and other banalities ("Rock star, pop star / Everybody dies / And all tomorrow's parties / They happened tonight") similarly bussed with accessible production values programmed to get Bic lighters waving. (As Jay-Z observed: That's the anthem, get your damn hands up.)

There are one or two more engaging moments sprinkled intermittently throughout, such as the "Woo-hoo!" refrains and frank sexual scrappiness of "I'll Do Anything." But after "Sunset Strip," things get progressively less interesting, both sonically and lyrically. Coincidentally, it's also at this point that the rawness of Love's voice begins to make itself frighteningly apparent. Love often sounds like she's scraping the very last layer of throat she's got left, and at times the effect is so jarring one wonders why no one in the studio at the time didn't point it out. By "Life Despite God," her shredded valentine of a voice is all but impenetrable, careening from a drugged-baby-doll slur to a fuzzy off-key rasp. That's only a fitting complement, though, to the album's rapidly dissolving musical real estate. The rock riffs are undercooked, evoking more an approximation of punch than any real sense of import; the high-impact moments of both the rockers and slower numbers are discouragingly familiar, echoing (intentionally or not) the past rock glories of others.

But that's the risk you take when trying to create rock 'n' roll bravado by committee, even if that committee includes producer Matt Serletic (Matchbox Twenty, Collective Soul, Aerosmith -- a resume that says it all), former 4 Non-Blondes vocalist (and recent Pink svengali) Linda Perry (who co-writes a substantial number of the tracks here) and even Bernie Taupin, long the lyricist of choice for Love's good buddy Elton John.

You'd think someone with Love's track record wouldn't need so much help; the rumors that her last two albums -- Live Through This and Celebrity Skin -- were largely written by her late husband Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, respectively, have always seemed a stretch. (For one thing, if Corgan had really masterminded Celebrity Skin, it would have sounded a lot worse.) But it's now painfully obvious that her once-obvious talents have atrophied from misuse -- not to mention Love's own storied substance abuse. How else to explain the precipitous slide from the piercing poignancy of Live Through This to the self-involved blur of sexual imagery and half-hearted audacity that passes for lyricism on Sweetheart? When Love tells God on "Mono" that he owes her "one more song" so that she can prove she's "better than him," you get the feeling -- you hope -- that even she doesn't believe what she's saying. Whether the him in question is Cobain or (as the lyric sheet cryptically suggests) Eminem, has anyone -- including Courtney herself -- ever really considered her a better artist than either of them?

Ten years ago, long before there was an Eminem to compare herself to, the watermark Live Through This established Courtney as a serious artistic peer of Cobain's. But the distance between that album and America's Sweetheart is much longer, deeper and farther than a mere decade. It's the distance between a genuine talent and a faded rock star trying too hard to hold on to the myth of her celebrity rather than the reality of her art. There's nothing approaching art or even real catharsis on Sweetheart; just the imitative posturing of someone whose priorities have tragically shifted from meaningful self-expression to mere self-indulgence.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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