It’s a reasonably well-documented fact that most if not all artistic people are a few sandwiches short of the old picnic basket, and before Amy Winehouse took over as music’s #1 female nutjob, there was Courtney Love. Over the past two decades, Courtney’s been labeled as just about anything you could think of: opportunist, poseur…you name it, Courtney’s been called it. However, the fact that she led the music industry in Hot Messitude during the Nineties (and she’s still up there these days) should not take away from the fact that she and her band Hole made some good music: most of which appears on 1994’s grunge-era classic Live Through This.
In retrospect, it’s pretty likely that her marriage to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain expedited the band’s signing to major label DGC (which just happened to be Nirvana’s label), but Courtney and Hole (which also featured Eric Erlandson on guitar, Kristen Pfaff on bass and Patty Schemel on drums) had paid their dues by slagging through the underground for years. Courtney had been a fixture on the L.A. rock scene since the early Eighties, enjoying vague associations with everyone from Faith No More to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, before founding Hole. They garnered some attention with an indie release called “Pretty On the Inside” before Love met Cobain. The association gave Courtney some additional notoriety (especially when she said she used heroin while pregnant with Kurt’s baby), but her association started a trend of her music almost becoming secondary to her celebrity. Which is a shame, because Live Through This is a damn good album.
A lot of the signifiers that associate music with the grunge era are here. The loud/soft dynamic is in full effect, as Courtney usually slurs the verses and shrieks the choruses. The lyrics are on the obtuse side-at least to my ears, but they certainly sound tortured enough. However, one thing that set this album apart from most records of that era was Courtney’s insistence on the music being as melodic as it was aggressive. Her sense of melody wouldn’t fully develop until her significantly more sanitized album “Celebrity Skin”, and most folks assume she had help in the songwriting process (in all likelihood from Kurt himself), but it’s a rarity in that it’s an aggressive rock album that you can actually sing along with.
Whether you’ll feel comfortable singing along with it is another story entirely. Courtney spends much of the album wallowing in self-torture (but then again, that was par for the course in those days). Doll Parts, the album’s most successful single, is a ballad that finds Courtney warbling “I want to be the girl with the most cake…someday you will ache like I ache”. Miss World is more upbeat musically but follows the same path lyrically. Starting off by drawling “I’m Miss World/somebody kill me/kill me pills/no one cares…”, it gradually picks up steam (amid some nifty guitar work by Erlandson) and blasts into the defiant chant of “I made my bed, I’ll lie in it/I made my bed, I’ll die in it”. Yeah, it’s disturbing, but damn if I don’t find myself chanting along with Courtney.
If there’s anything that stands out instrumentally about this album, it’s Erlandson’s guitar playing, which is aggressive (I’m using that word a lot in this review) in addition to being hooky and melodic. I can’t say whether Erlandson was stealing from Peter Buck or vice versa, but a lot of the songs on R.E.M.’s “return to loud rock” record “Monster” (which arrived about six months after Live Through This) have guitar parts that are fairly similar to the ones here. That sound propels songs like album opener Violet, which has almost a punk intensity to it. It’s fast enough to pogo to, anyway. The tempo is duplicated on the shinier Credit in the Straight World, which also finds Courtney dropping her stoned slur and almost sounding like a Go-Go…well, if Belinda and her homegirls were a lot less happy (I also just found out that it’s a cover…well, THAT explains why it sounds so different from the other songs on the album). That mush-mouthed slur is occasionally replaced by a demented shriek on songs like the snarling Plump. Thankfully, Courtney plays both the “severely stoned” and “really effing p*ssed” rolls pretty well.
Of course, the main thing that separated Courtney from the majority of other artists in her genre was the fact that she (and 2/3 of her band) was in possession of a vajayjay. A female perspective is and always has been a fairly rare occurrence in hard rock, and songs like the hushed Asking For It and the breakneck-speed shriek-a-thon She Walks On Me (with its interesting “smells like girl” lyric) struck a chord with angry chicks everywhere (who eventually mellowed out and started listening to Alanis Morissette) while still being hard enough for the dudes who loved them.
My favorite song on Live Through This is actually the song that served as the album’s “throwaway track”. The song Rock Star originally served as the album’s closing track, but it was pulled off the album and replaced by a song called Olympia, which was then re-titled Rock Star because it was already too late to change the album’s artwork. Follow? At any rate, my friend James (who got me into this album…picture two fat Black kids driving around the Bronx singing along to Hole) used to blast this, singing along with the shrieking Courtney, and it was this song that made me a fan. Courtney uses both the shriek and the slur/mumble in this song, the lyrics of which probably struck a chord with the arty outcast pierced girls who slammed their locker doors and stared out into a sea of Stepford-esque blonde cheerleaders-that’s how I picture it anyway. After singing lyrics like “we look the same, we talk the same…we even f*ck the same”, Courtney goes ballistic, hollering “And what do you do…with a revolution!!” like a woman unhinged. Which I guess she was.
If you’re gonna take 10 hard rock albums from the Nineties into a time capsule with you, Live Through This definitely deserves a place alongside “Superunknown”, “Vs.” and of course “In Utero” and “Nevermind”. The Nirvana-with-estrogen sound can at the very least be credited partially to Cobain’s influence, if not his direct participation. Unfortunately, Kurt killed himself less than a week before this album’s release (making it a bit of an uncomfortable listen due to Courtney’s fatalistic lyrics)and never got to see his wife’s album become a success-although it could be argued that the album became a success because of Kurt’s death (which was followed barely two months later by the fatal OD of bassist Kristen Pfaff). At any rate, Live Through This is an album that’s pretty amazing on it’s own merits, and ranks as one of the strongest (and most durable) rock albums of the Nineties. Actually, it could be argued that it’s held up WAY better than the person that made it.