Sometimes you have to separate the artist from the art, or, sometimes bad people write good songs. Courtney Love has spent far more time in the spotlight as a punchline than as a musician, and I doubt that will change anytime soon. I’m not going to mount a defense for her drug problems or justify the way she handled, say, Nirvana’s legacy or her relationship with her daughter or whatever. The woman needs serious help. I just want to talk about a record I like.
Hole never quite got the same respect as other grunge artists, and it’s pretty much because Love was such a divisive figure. She’s someone we like to tear down, and she kind of played into that. But focus on the music, and you’ll find a handful of tracks that burn the air.
You want tru punx? Throw on Pretty on the Inside. Hole’s 1991 full-length debut is a noisy, lacerating affair. It’s such a heavy, ugly, angry record. But got-damn does it roar. Before cigarettes killed her voice, Love could bellow with the best of them. She also commanded an ace band, with guitarist Eric Erlandson and bassist Jill Emery providing loads of crushing noise while drummer Caroline Rue plowed through everything on the kit.
Sonically, the record is on par with what Sonic Youth achieved circa Sister, which makes sense considering Kim Gordon served as Pretty’s co-producer. It also has some loud similarities to Nirvana’s own debut, Bleach. Speaking of which, Hole’s first record tops Nirvana’s debut, and so many people thought so that Hole actually outsold Nirvana until Nevermind blew up.
Pretty is essentially defined by three things: noise, screams and dark lyrics. Love provides two-thirds of those qualities. Her shouts herself hoarse throughout the record. Nothing here is phoned in. It’s her lyrics that sell the album, though. Song after song, from “Teenage Whore” to “Pretty on the Inside,” deals in imagery covering prostitution, abuse, addiction, the pain of living. This is not a happy record, but Hole sounds downright frightening.
The downside to taking inspiration from Sonic Youth, though, is that Hole also comes off as formless at times. “Mrs. Jones” has a killer ending, but it takes five minutes to get there, and I still don’t know why. “Sassy” sounds like a studio jam, like the members are fucking around. At a 10 tracks, Pretty suffers from a couple of bum songs. While the good material certainly rocks, any bad song just leaves Love open to criticism again.
Still, though, Pretty is one of two Hole albums worth owning (the other being Live Through This, a record that was as closely studied by detractors and conspiracy theorists as it was by fans). Love circa 2012 isn’t doing so well. Neither was Love circa 1991, really, but at least she turned that pain into compelling music.