I fell for Nirvana first, but I fell harder for Hole. I can still remember, as a teenager, removing ‘In Utero’ from my CD player and popping in ‘Live Through This’ for the first time, and being stupidly besotted. And then the ensuing scavenger hunt that ensued – from ‘Pretty On The Inside’ to ‘Celebrity Skin’ – showed it was no one-off, either: raw, angry, visceral, bile-filled, heartbreaking and very, very smart, there’s something undeniable about Hole.
Since then, Courtney Love’s been something of a hero to me – a rather fallible hero, and one who’s not immune from the odd publicity clanger, no doubt, but a hero nonetheless. And so it rankles me that even in 2016, folk can dismiss her so readily and easily, and I’m not sure if that stems from mere blinkered thinking or outright misogyny (although I’m pretty sure it probably is outright misogyny). People use the fact that she’s constantly flirted with disaster and self-implosion as a stick to beat her with, as if annoyed she won’t just go away; meanwhile, Keith Richards’ indestructibility makes him a rock’n’roll legend, a national treasure for getting hit on the head by a coconut. Likewise, there’s a nasty school of thought that dismisses ‘Live Through This’ because of claims that Kurt Cobain had a big hand in crafting it: not only is this utter rubbish (and also fails to acknowledge the influence that Courtney’s more heart-on-sleeve lyricism had on Nirvana – witness the directness of ‘In Utero’ compared to the murky verbal collage of ‘Nevermind’), but I’ve also seldom seen it suggested that ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is tainted because Alex Turner’s ex-girlfriend Johanna Bennett helped write it. The same rules don’t seem to apply, eh?
Anyway, the point is thus: Love has hinted at a Hole reunion with an Instagram selfie, which can only be a good thing. So, let’s take a moment to consider her output over the years…
5. ‘America’s Sweetheart’
“The sound on ‘America’s Sweetheart’ sucked beyond words,” grumbled Courtney in 2006, two years after the release of her solo debut. She has a point, too: the hodge-podge production job by Josh Abraham, James Barber and Matt Serlectic certainly wasn’t kind to ‘America’s Sweetheart’, with its luridly glossy and compressed faux-rock sound, strangling the songs so they’re stuck in a hinterland between 80s rock and 90s FM-friendly caper. Her circumstances at the time, including legal disputes, record label wranglings and drug addiction, probably didn’t help, either, and there’s a hackneyed, half-arsed feel to the likes ‘Life Despite God’, ‘Zeplin Song’ and the regrettable ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’-aping ‘I’ll Do Anything’.
And yet, even here – on what’s undoubtedly the weakest album in her discography – there’s still a handful of what-could-have-been germs, and good songs which could have been great in different circumstances: the belting, ragged ‘Mono’ with its tongue-in-cheek line
4. ‘Nobody’s Daughter’
Another album which’ll have you wishing that things had been slightly different, and which leaves a nagging feeling that it could have been a much more triumphant return. Sadly, the drivetime-rock of ‘Pacific Coast Highway’ comes on like a ditzy, aimless cousin of ‘Malibu’ from ‘Celebrity Skin’, and the Linda Perry-assisted woe-is-me fest of ‘Letter To God’ sticks out like the schlockiest of sore thumbs. And it’s only a Hole album in name, too: Melissa Auf Der Mar and Eric Erlandson are MIA, and the latter’s presence would have brought some guile to ‘Samantha’ and some grit to ‘For Once In Your Life’. Despite the flaws, though, there’s a fuck-you defiance that makes ‘Nobody’s Daughter’ seem so much more vital than ‘America’s Sweetheart’: after being dragged (and dragging yourself) through muck and mire for nearly a decade, what better way to start an album with the self-belief of the title track, and its victory crow “Don’t tell me I have lost/ When clearly I have won?” Elsewhere, ‘Skinny Little Bitch’ is as scathing and scabrous as Courtney’s been for many a year, all snarled, gnarled and knotty punk fury, and ‘Never Go Hungry’ is built from the remnants of ‘Doll Parts’ with its stark, stripped-back and almost uncomfortable honesty: “It’s a long way back, from where I’ve fallen from/ It’s a very hard fall, it’s a very cruel town.”
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3. ‘Pretty On The Inside’
‘Pretty On The Inside’ vs ‘Celebrity Skin’ is all a bit Sophie’s Choice for me: a sonic battle between a ball of primal, feral intensity and a smooth, stylish behemoth; a punch-up between a jumped-up underdog and a sleek, purring monster. In the end, the hazy charms of ‘Celebrity Skin’ win through, but ‘Pretty On The Inside’ is unmatched for just how raw it is: the way Courtney chews out sins and sinners – herself included – over a din of loud, ugly noise. Lyrically, too, it’s disturbing, dizzying and violent: ‘Garbage Man’ is a sad and stark cry from some alienated and abandoned being, a mixture of resentment and anger spat out in the line “Where the fuck were you when my lights went out?”. ‘Teenage Whore’ is similarly stark, too, with that creepy, call-and-response contrast of concerned mother and underage prostitute (“When I was a teenage whore, My mother asked me, she said, ‘Baby what for?”). And there’s something about ‘Mrs Jones’ that’s downright upsetting, lifting a title that brings to mind crooning declarations of moon-eyed romance and spinning on its head with the line “Fucking ran away with my abortionist/ My blue eye blacked with all the jizz”. And then there’s the brutal racket of ‘Sassy’, and the grim thrash of ‘Babydoll’, and the dark, demented and hell-sent take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides, Now’ (renamed ‘Clouds here) and… oh Lord. Is it too late to change?
2. ‘Celebrity Skin’
But for now, let’s stick with ‘Celebrity Skin’, the album on which Hole fluttered their eyelashes at the mainstream and looked fucking brilliant while doing so. Because while ‘Pretty On The Inside’ is so disturbingly, arrestingly honest, there’s a different type of bravery behind ‘Celebrity Skin’. By rights, in fact, it shouldn’t really work at all. In theory, it’s a reinvention too far, a group of nasty, grungy punks softening up and swapping irascible noise for sleek choruses and shiny melodies. In practice, it’s a mainstream honey trap, mixing Courtney’s lifelong hero-worship of Stevie Nicks and FM pop with angsty stadium-rock. Everyone knows the title track, of course: that crunching riff, those tongue-poking-hole-in-cheek lyrics mocking Hollywood vapidity, the butter-wouldn’t-melt posturing blown apart by the snarl “You’d better watch out/ What you wish for”. Elsewhere, there’s the Fleetwood Mac stuck in an LA-cocaine flake blizzard of ‘Awful’, the escapist haze of ‘Malibu’, the ghost of Kurt Cobain flickering in ‘Playing Your Song’ (“I had to tell them they were wrong/ And now they’re playing your song”), the walloping exuberance of ‘Hit So Hard’, the deft intimacy of ‘Northern Star’… no, I definitely prefer this one. I think.
1. ‘Live Through This’
It’s the predictable choice, I know. But it’s better to be right than to be contrary, and there’s no way that ‘Live Through This’ cannot be first. It’s not just Hole’s best albums, it’s one of the best albums of the 90s, period: an unflinching, uncomfortable treatise on sexism, exploitation, despair and anger, in which Courtney comes on like some vengeful Archangel taking revenge on the gutless. And even if it weren’t, sentiment would still ensure it’s forever number one on my list: I can still recall, now, hearing the opening bars of ‘Violet’ for the first time, with its rushing, stuttering and almost beautiful intro – a poetic evocation of a purple-streaked night-sky specked with stars – giving way to a guttural shriek and thrashing guitars. ‘Doll Parts’, all fragile, softly-softly heartache and broken spirit, still makes the hairs on my arms stand up. Sexual politics and misogyny are skewered on ‘Asking For It’ and ‘Jennifer’s Body’, childhood horrors are re-imagined on ‘Softer, Softest’, ‘Plump’ details the vicious custody battle Kurt and Courtney faced together for their daughter Frances Bean, and ‘Olympia’ (titled ‘Rock Star’ on the LP) takes potshots at the Riot Grrl movement. And while it’s a lyrical masterpiece, it’s Hole’s finest effort sonically, too: their loudest and lushest album, hard-edged and angry with the occasional flashes of soft underbelly and tenderness. It’s turned 22 years old this year, but that mixture of vitriol and vulnerability? That’ll never age.