Love and Desire

Listening to Hole’s Celebrity Skin (DGC) for the first time, you’re likely to be taken aback: Here, after all the image makeovers and public drama, is Courtney Love, singer and guitarist – not Courtney Love, movie star; or Courtney Love, widow; or Courtney Love, media-age grotesque.

A glance through the files deepens the unsettling effect: Eight years ago, Love was a bandleader so punk-rock she named her first Sub Pop single “Dicknail,” slapped a nude photograph of a prepubescent girl on the cover, and ironically quoted scripture on the back (“The mouth of a loose woman is a deep pit,” it read, immediately above a band photo in which the singer’s garishly over-lipsticked mouth and wandering right eye were the two most prominent features). Now she’s put in so much time as a Celebrity-with-a-capital-C – running around with movie stars, discussing (and defending) herself, having plastic surgery, changing wardrobes – that hearing her play even one chord is a genuine surprise.

The initial, humanizing guitar wallop of the title track quickly fades, and recent history reasserts itself with the first words of the song: “Oh, make me over.” Uh, no thanks, Courtney would seem to be the only rational response. You’re doing a fine job yourself. In fact, the song turns out not to be autobiographical at all – instead relating the travails of that mythical Hollywood icon the “hooker-waitress, model-actress” struggling in vain for stardom. If that sounds like a bitter, cynical topic for Love to address, well, it is. Which would be great – how much more punk can you get than bitter cynicism? – if the song weren’t also so disingenuous and self-serving (not to mention sexist): Who, after all, is Love putting down here? The hordes whose fantasies might easily have been inspired by Love’s own celebrity makeover are pretty soft targets.

Celebrity Skin is a credible pop effort, and that’s nothing to sniff at. The title song’s choruses build to a muscular guitar hook Rick Nielsen could be proud of. (Cheap Trick fans take note, though: track 10, “Heaven Tonight,” while amply jangly, is a new song – not a cover of Nielsen & Co.’s 1978 classic.) Even when the lyrics are juvenile – “Swing low, sweet cherry”? Come on! – the melodies are catchy, Love’s voice has a nice edge to it, and the production is as big and polished as you’d expect on an album that took this long to make.

Looming over the disc, often silently, is the shadow of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide (which coincided roughly with the last Hole album, Live Through This). All gripes aside, only the most demented observer would dare believe that this event could have caused Love anything but a world of pain unimaginable to most people. And “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” for instance, is genuinely touching in its evocation of the singer’s lost husband, “so sick in his body, so sick in his soul.” For that reason alone, you’ve got to cut the woman copious slack, and try to remember that somewhere beneath the Protean rock-star/movie-star hybrid persona, there may yet lurk a gifted punker with something to say.

P. J. Harvey’s shape-shifting, unlike Love’s, seems motivated by a mixture of shyness – or the attempt to overcome it – and genuine artistic curiosity, not by exhibitionism, grief, or overweening ambition. Some of her guises have been more successful than others, but none has smelled of an agenda.

With Is This Desire? (Island), which comes out next Tuesday, Polly Jean Harvey tries on a new self – a reasonably effective amalgam of several recent ones.

On Harvey’s first two albums, she sang angular, anguished songs in a deep, rich alto. The time signatures were unusual, the rhythms complex, the melodies intricate. When she played live, she was an intense, nervous woman with a guitar slung over a white T-shirt. Then, midway through promoting the second disc, Rid of Me, Harvey found a stage persona that freed her: Out with the thrift-store duds, the hunched shoulders, even the guitar; in with the Siouxsie Sioux false eyelashes, slinky bodysuit, and full-on sexpot stage moves – the backing band could handle musical duties. There was something disturbing, though, about the display. Harvey’s discomfort was still there for any alert observer to see; it was just sublimated into this oddly fascinating performance. With her third CD, To Bring You My Love, Harvey tried out a sort of smoldering blues rock that seemed beneath her considerable talents, and somewhat at odds with her newly found glamour.

But on the new album, she deftly interweaves that same bluesy feel with more complex music that recalls the earlier albums, plus some texturally satisfying electronica and (in an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink spirit) piano and strings.

On the brief second song, “The Sky Lit Up,” Harvey’s voice builds from a smoky alto to a bansheelike wail as repetitive, barbed-wire layers of guitar accumulate into an electronic thicket. “Joy” links a fluttery jungle beat with a distorted bass line that sounds like nothing so much as a foghorn. At moments in the song, though, Harvey’s singing verges on unbearable bellowing.

Desire, in fact, reaches maximum intensity on its quietest song, “Catherine.” “I envy the road, the ground you’ve tread under,” she sings softly. “I envy the wind, your hair riding over / I envy the pillow your head rests and slumbers.” The song’s menacing denouement: “I’m damned to hell every second you breathe.” It’s Harvey’s exploration of that kind of unsettling sentiment that demonstrates a genuine literary talent – the kind of tough-minded self-examination almost no rock singers these days seem capable of.

Like Courtney Love, Harvey is engaged in a public process of trying to find herself; Harvey, though, seems to be making some headway.

Love and Desire