Thursday, December 4, 2008

Prove Your Greatness: Live Through This by Hole

This is the first entry in a series of posts that will take a second listen to the "Great Albums of Rock." One of the favorite pastimes of the music media (and, sometimes, the mainstream media) is to create lists of the "Greatest Albums of All Time." But are these albums really great, or did they secure their place by being Groundbreaking, or Important, or Difficult, yet now gather dust in the musicophile's collection? Is Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope really a better album than the Who's Quadrophenia, as Rolling Stone says it is? We'll see.

The first album is 1994's
Live Through This by Hole. Does it still stand up? Does it deserve the plaudits it got when it was released?

In a word: yes. In two words: Oh yes.

It's easy to forget that Courtney Love is not just a Paris Hilton-style celebrity. She is, or at least was, a regular tabloid queen. But unlike America's favorite heiress, Love's artistic work exists alongside her gossip-rag antics. Sure, we know her because she was Kurt Cobain's wife (and then widow). But she, at least, has one masterpiece to justify the media attention surrounding her.

Live Through This was ecstatically received upon its arrival. Unlike many albums that are considered the masterpieces of the rock canon, it made its splash on entry, but didn't cause ripples. It was the the last gasp of grunge, a style of music that became unfashionable (at least with the critics) soon after its release (or, more accurately, after Cobain's death, which occurred four days after its release). So, unlike Beck's Odelay, Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, or Radiohead's OK Computer, it was never borrowed from or replicated.

It's also an anachronism. Its lyrics verge on early-90s alt rock parody. Angst and self loathing abound. A sample lyric: "
I'm Miss World, somebody kill me [...] No one cares, my friends." Its lyrical hostility can be off-putting and adolescent. Lyrically, Live Through This is also also a laundry list of third-wave feminist complaints: femininity, domesticity, motherhood, daughterhood, eating disorders, negative body image, marriage, broken relationships. (Was Love a Women's Studies major? You'd think so listening to the album.) They're all there, and they weigh down an otherwise excellent album.

Live Through This has one notable virtue, which lifts it aloft the above complaints and makes it compulsively listenable: its songs are incredible. They are gorgeous and furious, and almost always at the same time. This is the genius of the record. This loud soft loud, this melodicism with noise, this textural juxtaposition, is, of course, the trademark of the Pixies and Nirvana. But (here we go), as a woman, Love doesn't have to hold back on the plaintive splendor. She doesn't have to choose between "Landslide" and "Lithium," "Both Sides Now" and "Debaser." She can have both, and does.

Yes, it's beautiful, but the second half of the equation is that Live Through This is also immensely cathartic. Listen to "Softer, Softest," the album's greatest song. Halfway through, the sighing ballad climaxes into raging electric guitars and Love's screams. The listener's melancholy isn't alleviated, it is intensified and then emancipated. In this sense, the album can be compared to the works of two of Hole's contemporaries: PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney. But, for as great (or greater) as they are, they never struck the same balance of, what one critic once called, "rose and thorn." They can be beautiful, and they can be raging, but Live Through This is both at the same time without letting the seams show.

One measure of a classic album is the quality of its album tracks
its singles. On Live Through This the most famous singles, "Doll Parts" and "Violet," for as excellent as they are, don't match songs like "Asking for It" or "Plump." The latter hide their best elements in their refrains, asides that, on a lesser album, would have been broken off and made into their own songs. Here, they are part of what are already fine tunes. The best moments of Live Through This are in the interstices.

Live Through This succeeds because it has an embarrassment of riches: hooks, fury, melody, beauty. No, the album is not groundbreaking, important, or difficult. It's just damn great.