This April marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Hole’s second album, the seminal Live Through This.
Without doubt one of the finest albums of its time, and in my opinion the album of 1994 – which is no mean feat, given the quality of the competition at that time and the standard of albums being released at that time.
It remains one of my top three to five favorite albums of all time and in the 20 years since its release it has lost none of its potency.
With the album’s disarming tone, both sonically and thematically, along with Courtney Love’s potent lyrical imagery, and an acutely spot-on production that optimizes all of those strengths, the end-result is something in equal measures beautiful, bruising, compelling and timeless.
It is, however, both to its benefit and its detriment that the release of Live Through This just happened by strange currents of fate to coincide with the death of Kurt Cobain in April 1994; on the one hand that association has imbued the album with even more of an emotional resonance and connection than it might’ve had even on its own merit.
But on the other hand it has also made it difficult for many people to fully separate the album from the traumatic events surrounding its release.
At the time of its release, Live Through This was overshadowed by the drawn-out reaction to Kurt’s death; and even now on the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, that date itself was overshadowed by the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s passing and by all the excitement over Nirvana’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
All the nonsense surrounding Courtney Love in general has often gotten in the way of people affording her the respect she’s due as a songwriter and frontwoman, and certainly Live Through This, though highly regarded in critical circles, has been lost on a lot of people over the years that haven’t given it the attention it warrants.
I remember hearing Live Through This for the first time; I remember having a rare bit of pocket money one week, aged 13, and heading straight to the music shop to buy the album on cassette tape. The moment I looked at that iconic cover photo of the Leilani Bishop Miss-World-like figure with the tiara and the bouquet I was fascinated; that image has resonated with me ever since.
I took it home and listened to it in one sitting, watching the tape turn round and round in my player, every intermission of white noise between tracks accompanied by anticipation of what might be coming next.
By the time ‘Rock Star’ was finished and the final bit of white noise faded off, I knew I had just heard something special and would be listening to this album for the rest of my life.
Not as raw and brutal as its potent predecessor Pretty On the Inside and not as commercial and radio-inclined as its tamer follow-up Celebrity Skin, Hole’s second album is perfection itself.
Immaculately conceived and beautifully executed, every track is a perfect ten.
From the bruised opening splendour of Violet (surely one of the most primal and powerful singles in living memory) and the bittersweet ode of Miss World, through the sheer pop perfection of Asking For It and the dark evocativeness of Jennifer’s Body (aided by some awesome Patti Schemel drumming) all the way through to the scarred brilliance of I Think I Would Die, this is the kind of album – and I do mean album as opposed to mere collection of songs – that extraordinarily sounds better and better with age.
It already sounded, looked and felt iconic even in 1994: but somehow it feels even more so now.
I don’t know that anyone’s put out an album as gripping or as perfect as this since.
Courtney’s lyrics, intelligent and incisive, both romantic and dark, both autobiographical and idealised, are compelling throughout. And the songs musically, although definitely much poppier than on Pretty On the Inside, still retain the earlier edginess and violence that prevent it from having been seen as any kind of commercial compromise; even if the album was primed for commercial success.
And it was primed for commercial success, the record marking a shift from hardcore punk dynamics and the riot grrrrl vibe to more accessible alternative-rock, with more emphasis on melody and sophistication of composition.
Which is no slight against Pretty on the Inside – which I still think is one of the most raw and incisive albums ever made. But Live Through This just put Hole into a whole other space.
This record also contains possibly the best album use of electro-acoustic guitars ever to be heard: the guitar tones and resonances on songs like Violet, Miss World and Jennifer’s Body have this strange kind of marred or strained beauty that is difficult to define. The production, needless to say, is first-rate.
The coupled dynamics of sheer rock potency and subtler feminine energy or vibrations permeates key songs like Violet and Asking For It in a way that feels sonically and tonally transcendent. While the compositions are generally simple (just as Nirvana’s were), the dynamics and the shifts and the dualities (and, it has to be said, the great production and mixing) are what elevates all the tracks.
Jennifer’s Body is one of my favorite songs by any artist ever. Violet is almost overwhelming in its sonic power: both in terms of Courtney’s searing vocals and in terms of Patti’s overpowering drumming and the juxtaposition of the melancholy and starry-vibed electro-acoustic verse chords with the thundering avalanche of the heavy chorus when it comes in.
Those songs – Jennifer’s Body and Violet – have an immaculate flow to them: like being carried on magical sonic waves.
Patti Schemel’s drumming on Violet, and especially on Jennifer’s Body and Gutless, is brilliant and frankly pisses on some of the drumming in numerous arena rock bands of the time with their overblown, macho drummers.
Meanwhile bassist Kristen Pfaff’s background vocals add a haunting, beautiful extra dimension to the recordings throughout, especially on Doll Parts, I Think I Would Die (a song co-written with Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland) and again Jennifer’s Body.
That song – I Think I Would Die – also contains the greatest “FUCK! YOU!” ever recorded, and makes Axl Rose’s multitude of GNR expletives sound like feeble mouse-whispers by comparison. I Think I Would Die, with its gorgeous harmonies and twisted persona, feels like a schizophrenic entity: but it is compulsive listening.
I Think I Would Die does in fact sound like a Babes in Toyland song, which I can easily imagine Kat singing in her compelling Jekyll and Hyde manner. But it also works stunningly as a Hole song and as a Courtney song: and is one of the album’s most potent moments.
Miss World, the first single from the record (released prior to Kurt’s death), is both heartbreaking and compelling: and it seems to be the thematic heart of the album, given a clear correlation between the iconic Leilani Bishop cover image and the coronation aspect of the Miss World music video. This song and the accompanying video is so interesting and so resonant that I wrote a whole separate article about it here.
The rest of the album consists of solid, unflappable component tracks: Credit in the Straight World is a cover, but is given the Hole watermark and is a kick-ass track, while Softer Softest is the… well, softest entity on the record, but is a compelling song all the same. Gutless is a riff-and-percussion driven ass-whooping, and Plump is a mid-tempo stomper that grows bigger and better with each listen.
Doll Parts, the main single and the most well-known song from the album, is actually the least interesting in terms of composition. But it is so persistent in its bittersweet vibe and knowing restraint that you just can’t argue with it. It is also lyrically so honest and open that you could never fail to feel the weight of every lyric and every chord: this feels like the most sincere and unvarnished insight into Courtney as a person that we’re ever likely to have in a song.
And Rock Star, which closes the album, somehow manages to be gleeful, sarcastic, triumphant and satirical all at the same time. I don’t know if Rock Star is an attack on rock n’ roll or an embrace of it: maybe a suitably undecided mixture of both? But, whatever Courtney’s lyrical intent, it’s a kick-ass ride and the most ‘fun’ thing on Live Through This.
Although broadly acclaimed and praised at the time of its release (the late John Peel also listed it among his top twenty favorite albums of all time in 1997, though he utterly detested everything that came after), I still feel the album has been somewhat under-regarded over the years, this being partly due to a lot of hostility towards Love from various quarters.
Rolling Stone’s review regarded the album as comparable with the potency of Nirvana and the Sex Pistols and highlighted that Live Through This “may be the most potent blast of female insurgency ever committed to tape”.
Spin rated the record a 10/10 and made it the No.1 album of the year in their annual top 20, colorfully describing it in part as “rock stardom as revenge upon the entire human race.”
It’s worth noting how much DGC Records, a subsidiary of Geffen, believed in Hole and how much was expected commercially of Live Through This, which was the band’s first major-label release; the million-dollar advance was four times as much as that afforded to Nirvana when they were signed to the same label to record Nevermind and the royalty rate was substantially higher too. They had clearly believed Hole and Courtney were a lucrative signing that would yield great commercial success.
While Hole have been successful by the standards of most alternative acts, the sense has always been that this success has fallen short of original expectations.
My sense has always been that this had nothing to do with Courtney’s abilities as a musician or Hole as a musical force, but to do entirely with all the extraneous nonsense that surrounds Courtney Love as a celebrity.
I have personally had to learn to separate somewhat Courtney Love the celebrity, who I find irritating, even gross, a lot of the time, from Courtney Love the musician, who really deserves far more credit than she’s often given.
As I said already, every song comprising Live Through This is genuinely perfect; it really is a perfect album that seemed to have come together immaculately, even though apparently this wasn’t the case, with several attempts having been made to record the album, including an endeavour to make the album in Paris with producer Butch Vig in a session involving Kat Bjelland that had been unproductive.
You couldn’t tell that from the finished work. My only wish is that the haunting Old Age, written by Kurt, had been put on the album (instead it features on Hole’s Incesticide-type collection My Body the Hand Grenade); it would’ve slotted beautifully between Doll Parts and Credit In The Straight World.
I actually think the Hole version of Old Age is a lot better than the rough/incomplete Nirvana version.
At the time, the main reason I was interested in hearing the album was because I had listened to a BBC Radio 1 highlights broadcast of Hole’s set from the Reading Festival ’94 and it was just awesome; while there was a lot of soap-opera-ish attention on Courtney at that point due to Kurt’s death and all the drama leading up to it, it wasn’t until I’d heard that Reading Festival set that I understood that Hole was a great band and Courtney a tremendous musical force (I hadn’t heard ‘Pretty On the Inside’ at that point – I was only a kid, so that broadcast was my first taste of Hole).
Until that point, I’d only known Courtney Love as Kurt Cobain’s slightly wacky wife. Unfortunately that’s still exactly how a lot of people regard her – as Kurt’s wife and not as a great, gifted songwriter in her own right.
Kurt’s death, the nature of that death and some of the enduring conspiracy theories surrounding it, continue to cast an unfortunate shadow over Courtney and Hole even two decades later (some of the anti-Courtney conspiracy theorists even point to the title Live Through This itself as some kind ‘threat’ or ill intent towards Kurt; actually it’s a Vivien Leigh/Gone with the Wind reference).
That being said, it’s difficult to look at lyrics and themes in Live Through This – especially in songs like ‘Doll Parts’ and ‘Asking for It’ – and to not see an eerie precognition or foreshadowing of tragic events that were about to transpire. It makes Live Through This all the more compelling and all the more bittersweet.
But again, that’s not the same as saying that Live Through This features any kind of deliberate predictive programming.
As for the myth that the album was largely written and or influenced by Kurt Cobain, that’s almost certainly nonsense largely concocted by Courtney Love haters (of which there are a great many). Of all the highly insulting misconceptions some people have about Courtney Love, the idea that she couldn’t have possibly written so brilliant an album with her bandmates is one of the most incredibly disrespectful.
It’s worth noting, while we’re on this subject, that Courtney herself may have, according to several sources at the time, had some degree of influence on Kurt’s writing for the In Utero album. She doesn’t, however, go on about it all the time; and in any case whether Kurt had any influence on Live Through This or whether Courtney had any influence on In Utero isn’t particularly relevant to me, it’s just curious that the people who make such a point of the one instance tend not to ever acknowledge the other.
Just by being so important a presence in her life, Kurt was obviously an influence on the record, and likewise Courtney on In Utero.
In 1998, she touched on the subject herself. “All this time I have never addressed this. Kurt did not write Live Through This. I mean for fuck’s sake, his skills were much better than mine at the time – the songs would have been much better.”
Meanwhile Kurt himself, the story goes, told Courtney how much he loved the album in their last phone call to each other; “I want you to know you made a really great album,” he allegedly said.
Although I made the point earlier of how much Kurt’s death effected perception of the album, it is difficult not to note how much tragedy surrounded the album’s release and promotion; not just Kurt’s death but the death of Hole’s bassist Kristen Pfaff.
It’s as if some strange, cruel karmic agent was shooting arrows at the release of what should’ve been not only a creative, but commercial, triumph for Hole.
Conspiracy theories also exist concerning the tragic death of Pfaff. How much merit those theories do or do not have is difficult to assess: and not a subject for this particular article.
But certainly the event of Live Through This and its intended high-profile release was mired in tragedy and it’s doubtful that Courtney can look back at that time with any kind of fondness; which is of course sad, because it should’ve been a moment of triumph.
Courtney Love has never hit this level of potency since and will never match this; but that’s no criticism.
After all, perfection is a great rarity that is seldom repeated by the same artist more than once (and hardly ever attained by any artist even once, for that matter). Hole’s follow-up to Live Through This, 1998’s Celebrity Skin, though it had some genuinely brilliant songs on it, was a record clearly much more primed for MTV and for mainstream consumption.
Courtney herself has done herself few favours over the years, turning herself into a tacky celebrity for people to make fun of instead of letting her artistic life do the talking.
Which, being a fan of her music, has always bothered me; I’m not advocating Courtney Love become Greta Garbo and go into decades-long isolation, but I’ve always wished she’d just shut herself away for a while and work on her art – because it’s just a shame about all the rest of it.
Still, I guess Courtney is Courtney and you’ve got to take the whole package.
Courtney was also, by that time, less a rock musician and more a celebrity: and the potency of the music seemed to diminish a little alongside that timeline. And unfortunately it was the last time the proper Hole (with Schemel and Eric Erlandson at least) recorded an album; there have been rumours recently of a reformation of the classic line-up, but it remains to be seen whether that ever happens.
In the meantime, Courtney is focusing on music again, with new material being circulated and more being worked on, and with highly-anticipated UK solo shows imminent. Good – we need someone of Courtney Love’s caliber and abilities as a songwriter and as, dare I say it, a rock star, in this arid rock-n-roll landscape we currently live in.
Live Through This, irrespective of anything that’s come since or may be yet to come, stands as a work of extreme beauty, potency and perfection; a moment in time immaculately captured, it remains as powerful today as it did in 1994. And to me, it’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded.