Courtney Love's greatest skill is selling a myth, or more accurately, self-myth, the illusion that she is an important rocker, the face and voice of a generation. Since she gives great interview, she was a media sensation even before she vaulted to stardom after the suicide of her husband Kurt Cobain in 1994, but after his death, it was as if she inherited his mantle of the spokesperson of the alt-rock revolution and she did what she did -- promote herself relentlessly. Soon, her fame easily eclipsed that of her band Hole, whose second album Live Through This sold respectably in 1994, but hardly well enough to support her celebrity (it went platinum, but peaked only at 52 in the Billboard charts, with only two of its singles making waves on Modern Rock radio). Still, Love was nearly ubiquitous in the music and entertainment press during the latter half of the '90s, as she boasted about the impending second Hole album as she relaunched her acting career by appearing in Milos Forman's biopics. Though her music and film careers faded at the turn of the century, she was never far from the spotlight, or at the very least not from the headlines, and when the disbandment of Hole was quietly announced early in the 2000s, nobody paid it much attention. Love then embarked on a solo career, first by talking about it, then by playing a few shows, then by disappearing for a while as her personal life sank into a sea of lawsuits, rumors, and public incidents. Just when it seemed like the album would be consigned to the dust-heap of history alongside Guns N' Roses' always-promised, never-released Chinese Democracy, Love lurched and spit out America's Sweetheart in February 2004.
Considering all the drama, it's easy to forget that America's Sweetheart is only her second album of new material in ten years and only her second album since Cobain's death. That's not much work for an "important" voice -- Terrence Malick might only release a movie every 20 years and retain his significance, but rock & roll is a much different, more ephemeral art form than film -- but then again, it's reasonable to ask if Love was all that important anyway, particularly since her solo debut is so sloppy and predictable that it suggests her music is more bluster than meaning. Not entirely surprisingly for somebody who dropped out of music nearly six years ago, she sounds out of date. She's trying to snarl like it's 1994, yet wrapping herself in a glossy production from 1998 while relying on songs that are an amaglam of bad L.A. punk and bad L.A. metal, right down to a song bitching about a boyfriend who ceaselessly plucks out Zeppelin riffs on his guitar that sounds like a freeze-dried complaint from the days before Nirvana. In some respects, America's Sweetheart does hit harder than Celebrity Skin, but the distortion is canned and there's no weight, no strengh in her attack. Love is trapped by her desire to appear punk rock and her desperate thirst for fame, so she recycles her old ideas with the assistance of such collaborators as ex-4 Non Blondes and later Christina Aguilera co-writer Linda Perry and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin. She winds up with a processed, affected record halfway between Live Through This and Pat Benatar or possibly Billy Squier. It's an ungainly, unwanted mix, but like on Celebrity Skin, particularly "Awful," it does provide some songs that work on the surface, and they're all front-loaded -- the lead single "Mono," "But Julian I'm a Little Bit Older Than You," and the unabashed power ballad "Hold on to Me." Not long after that, Love's persona and musical limitations get in the way. She never strays from her two favorite topics -- herself and rock & roll -- and since she's so self-referential, so obsessed with rock history, it's possible that lifting the MTV theme for "Mono" or appropriating Urge Overkill's "Sister Havana" for "Hello" are simply knowing allusions, the way that the meta-references to the Clash and the Ramones on "But Julian" are, but it sounds like something else. And while Love has proven herself a fan of rock history and criticisms in her entertaining interviews, these do not translate well to lyrics, even on the very, very catchy "But Julian," where she comes across as a hectoring granny berating somebody younger, in this case the Strokes' Julian Casablancas (who, for the record, is 14 years younger than Love). Yet all this is secondary to what this record is really about: the chaos that is Courtney. As Rodney Crowell once said, life is messy, but Love is a mess, and all the things about Love that sounded bracing ten years ago -- the excess, the anger, the narcissim, and the bile and venom -- sound desperate and grimy as she reaches 40. It's not just the lyrics, it's that her voice is ravaged and that her performance is ragged: witness the beginning of "Life Despite God," where she can barely get the words out. But one of the many problems with America's Sweetheart is that even if she's careening out of control personally, she's not making art from it -- thanks to that glossy production and celebration of bad metal, this is a long, long way from such dark, harrowing classics as Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, Neil Young's Tonight's the Night or, yes, Nirvana's In Utero. Instead, it's like Mariah Carey's Charmbracelet, an intended return to form where nobody acknowledged that the songs didn't work and the singer's voice was utterly shot, they just carried on pretending everything was OK. Since Love is a far more interesting personality and musician than Carey, America's Sweetheart is a more interesting record, but it's interesting like a trainwreck or a tabloid scandal, something to gawk at for a while but kind of depressing and ultimately forgettable. [America's Sweetheart was also released in a "clean" version containing no profanities.]