February 19, 2004

A Nasty Valentine

Print More

It’s easy to get entangled in the putrid talk-show caricatures and tabloid excrement that have molested Courtney Love for more than a decade. Before she was held in contempt, dropping to the pavement, and vomiting all over her disintegrating veins, she was at the epicenter of arguably the greatest pop music era of the 1990s. Now, her stardom is not only in its decline; it’s been fossilized and flung into the Arctic Ocean. So it’s a bit of a surprise that a major label would release what is essentially a grunge record ten years after its heyday. Even more perplexingly, Courtney’s not exactly going through the prime of her life right now, unless you consider it a picnic in the park to be addicted to painkillers and perpetually bickering with the LA Country District Attorney. Just another day for the self-proclaimed leader of working moms everywhere.

As any rocker knows, the best time to release an album is amidst the ashes of your former glory, and America’s Sweetheart decisively belongs in that category of morbidly overdosed dirt-carousel albums. Courtney is simultaneously fuming against fate, deferential to her own predicament, and impounded in her own megalomania. She’s a grimy, lethargic punk-rock mess of mascara teetering on her own tombstone, and no one could possibly say this album is anything less than the most entertaining slab of psychopathy in recent memory. The opening song is intentionally the death of rock ‘n roll. That it’s actually unable to get to the point that rock has no more points is a testament to how magnificently this album fails and to how much tragedy lies on Courtney’s road to ruin. She tried to kill rock, and her rock was already so feeble it couldn’t even kill itself. Alluding to Kurt Cobain, she sings, “Hey God, you owe me one more song/So that I can prove to them/That I’m better than him.” This unites three of the most prevalent punk sentiments: killing old rock icons, killing your spouse, and badgering God to submit to your sinful desire. The guitars spit out three-chord riffs too drunk to even feign originality, and Courtney’s bleary-eyed insouciance falters over a hook as mellow, forgettable, and anachronistic as watching a John Hughes movie in 2004. On “I’ll Do Anything,” crestfallen “whoo-hoos” are shackled between each histrionic line and funneling guitar solo. This is the sort of album where the lyrics casually include the word “man” before every chorus (in the surfer sense).

Courtney’s voice is still as reliably unreliable and gloriously unlistenable as it was in Hole. Cobain infamously drank cough syrup to preserve his frayed vocals. Apparently, Courtney has replaced that method with injecting heroin into her lungs. Her voice is sometimes inaudible, sometimes strident, and always utterly incoherent. While it’s often just grating, her shouting, slurring howl finds refuge in the parched slide guitar of “Sunset Strip” (a sequel of sorts to Hole’s yearning daydream, “Malibu”).

Like all proper drug albums, there’s also a song written by Bernie Taupin: “Uncool” is trounced by skittering wraiths as Courtney sings, “I just want to bleed/ Tear a hole in me.” It should sound as laughable as Norwegian metal, but her voice bears a weariness that seems sincerely suicidal.

Shockingly, the riffs shabbily cribbed from Stone Temple Pilots fall apart towards the end to reveal “Never Gonna Be the Same,” a soft sway that resembles nothing so much as Sade’s “By Your Side” with frothing keyboard flourishes and a lock-step guitar that tiptoes into the track without waking anyone up. But the lyrics are mostly divided between hagiographies and deicide myths. It makes very little sense, but it closes an album that feels essential despite decay. The most rebellious sort of rock is the form that refuses to observe trends or make, you know, good music.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt