Rediscovering: Hole’s Live Through This

Well, this would have to be the first Rediscovering I’m doing after the release of the Nirvana: Sound of Dentage boxset, which overlaps the recording of this album (y’know, Hole, fronted by Kurt’s wife?). Of course, this also happens to be the Hole record most overshadowed by Kurt’s death, and the one people thought he ghostwrote. Thing is, that’s all biographer bullshit. Kurt’s contribution to this record were a couple of improv harmonies and nothing more. Unlike most people who write about 90s alt, I don’t believe Kurt is the reason for everyone around him picking up a guitar and writing pop music with it. As such, that’s all of the connection I’m referring to for our purposes.

Hole's Live Through This

Onto Hole’s unfortunately-titled Live Through This.

My previous experience, if any

“Celebrity Skin”. Which I fucking love as a song, but that’s about it. Of course, anyone who knows much of anything about alternative and 90s rock has heard (and likely seen) the absurd lengths frontwoman Courtney Love has gone to on stage and in interviews, but as for the music? Well, Hole’s the band rock radio seems to have forgotten, as did I. This one was another record store impulse buy that sat around–until now, of course.

The history lesson

After their resolutely “unlistenable” Pretty on the Inside, Hole was looking to go pop. To that end, Courtney Love learned to write a bridge, and the band ended up recruiting a new rhythm section and a crack team of sung and unsung college rock giants (see: Scott Litt from the R.E.M. camp, J Mascis the Dinosaur, and the tag team of Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade) to produce and mix it. It was then recorded where Siamese Dream was recorded, half under the influence of crystal meth. Regardless of the sociopolitics, Live Through This did very well, selling multiplatinum and having its praises sung by everyone from Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau, and even somehow fucking John Peel. Quite the legacy.

Well?

I did lie about only mentioning Kurt in the intro, because his influence looms over one very, very notable part of this record, and that’s the intro to the mid-album punker “Credit in the Straight World”. Surprise, it’s actually “Old Age”! Kurt notably gave it to her after his attempts to work it out for Nevermind failed several times over, and man–man does it stick out. Live Through This has its pretty moments, which I’ll get into shortly, but “Old Age” is just a pretty song, and not in the same way as Courtney’s songs. It’s a nice reminder that Live Through This was not written in a vacuum, but it also just makes me wanna listen to “Old Age” again.

Live Through This is through and through a punk record. “Violet” goes quiet-loud-fast-quiet one too many times, “Jennifer’s Body” is driving with a nice vocal melody in the chorus, and “Gutless” is mostly bile. I only wish I could say it was terribly memorable punk. Hole is an audibly tight group (Sean Slade even recalling that all of the basslines were from the initial tracking takes, with no overdubs or redos), but as much as I hear about Eric Erlandson’s guitar work, I can’t really pick much of it out. It’s competent. It carries a song. And it is kinda neat and shimmery as far as punk goes, but I can chalk that up to the production as much as I can the player.

That’s on the loud songs, though. On the quieter songs, Live Through This really does shine. “Doll Parts” starts a bit weird with Courtney’s bizarre vocal affectations (“doll paaaaarts“), but when you get to that beautiful coda, that “someday you will ache like I ache”? Absolutely fantastic song. I love “Asking for It” too, which has hands-down the best chorus on the entire album, eerie, hanging in the balance as Courtney nags that vocal line (about that time a bunch of people at a Mudhoney show stripped all her clothes off, apparently). It just works.

In any case, what you focus on here is Courtney’s voice and lyrics, and that’s where this album either works or falls apart, depending on what kind of listener you are. Put simply, Courtney has a very directly feminine outlook in her lyrics. Kind of overbearingly so. Now, I fucking love a few female-fronted groups, hell, feminine rock groups. Look at Hole’s contemporaries The Breeders, whose Pod directly inspired Live Through This (and is a fucking fantastic record). Pod has a slightly warped, girl-centric, girl-penned grasp on lyrics in its own right. Good example: “Hellbound” is about (I’m not fucking kidding!) a fetus that survives an abortion, but tell me you’d get that from the rather terse lyrics:

It lives
In folds of red and steamy air
It lives
In misery

We’re hellbound, hellbound (Hellbound, hellbound)
Hellbound, hellbound (Hellbound, hellbound)
Hellbound, hellbound (Hellbound, hellbound)
Oh!

Oh, we’re falling
Falling down
Down, down, down

It lives
Despite the knives eternal
It lives
Marry me

Pod is a whole lot of bizarre, mangled imagery–moss and rotting logs, burning fields, threesomes, bad sex and bad TV–that, paired with Kim’s pleasant, everygirl voice (not that that’s a bad thing, she sings lovely), lets you either tune in close or tune out and just enjoy that the girl can write a damn song. For a more recent example (yes, I will ramble about Breeders songs in a post about Hole), look at “Walking With a Killer”, which is actually about a pretty Hole-like topic–rampant sexual harassment!

[It] stemmed from being in high school and walking from my house to the store and fucking assholes yelling out the window. ‘RAPE VICTIM!’ It was fucking raw around here. I think it’s cos there’s Wright-Patterson Air Force base, a military base and shit… Dudes can really be not very cool sometimes.

Yet, reading her lyrics for the tune, she gets the danger across in a way that doesn’t bash you over the head. It’s a killer targeting women, without a doubt–but she builds the picture around that, again, letting you ignore what’s really a very sore, awkward topic for a song if you’d like. Courtney prefers the…direct approach, and worse yet, her voice is such a central focus of the otherwise meat and potatoes punk that when a line’s a clunker, boy, does it clunk. “Softer, Softest” would absolutely be a favorite if not for the single most awful fucking line on the entire album: “Pee girl gets the belt”.

Why would you write this line? Why would you describe child abuse like that? Why would Courtney admit during their Unplugged performance to being “the girl in elementary school that always smelled like pee”? This is awful.

Live Through This is an odd record in the Rediscovering pile in that it’s a lot more likable when you actually know a bit about Courtney. Watching her in a more sober interview, still with her usual fire and bounce but a whole lot less wasted, she’s clearly a character, but they’re what makes the world go around, really. Yet I was about ready to tear this album to ribbons over the way she comes off throughout the music itself. She’s got a powerful voice, a decent grasp on the songwriting stuff (though it kinda feels sprinkled in sometimes), and a good band backing her. It just…sounds very desperate and deaf sometimes.

I’ll leave you with a rather amusing quote from Courtney, addressing the band who initially wrote “Credit in the Straight World”, Young Marble Giants (who of course happen to be Welsh). The original song is this menacing, surprisingly quiet bit of guitar strumming and girl vocals, while Hole’s cover is…a Hole song.

But the last section of the show, including the encore, was brutal and brilliant. “Credit in the Straight World” was a screamer. Afterward, Love told how the song’s author (Stuart Moxham) hated Hole’s version of the song. “He says it’s like pornographic Led Zeppelin. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Good way to summarize the entire record, really.

Are you keeping it?

Eh…no.

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