Courtney Love once promised that her debut solo album, America's Sweetheart, would have "one song about a fictional boy who saves fictional rock and roll in a fictional town." Change "boy" to "girl" and the premise remains the same.
Love's ironically titled album, set for a February 10 release, is as much about herself as about the state of rock, with a thematic structure similar to Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. Love, however, isn't simply answering one particular album, as Phair did with the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main St. Sweetheart, even more audaciously, takes on the entire male rock pantheon, offering Love herself as its redeemer.
"Hey, God, you owe me one more song/ So I can prove to you/ That I'm so much better than him," she wails in the opening battle cry, "Mono," whose intro riff echoes the sound of early MTV promos.
The layers of meaning evoked by the title and lyrics of the song are purposeful: They suggest being on one's own, the recording process, kissing and disease — motifs that repeat throughout the album.
The "him" remains unidentified, but one can't help but imagine she's referring to either her late husband, Kurt Cobain, and to the rumors that the Nirvana frontman had a hand in writing Hole's Live Through This, or to Eric Erlandson, her main songwriting partner in Hole. Of course, Love has also claimed the song is actually a "Fred [Durst] murder fantasy." Or, as she later hinted, about Eminem. Or even Jack White. In the end, the real "he" behind the song is irrelevant; it's every He.
Love drives that point home throughout the rest of this fast-moving album, citing past and present punk and rock heroes: Black Flag's "Rise Above" and the Damned's "Smash It Up" in "Mono"; the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" in "Sunset Strip"; Prince's "Erotic City," the Ramones' "Pinhead" and the Clash's "London Calling" in "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You" (whose title refers to
Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas); and the self-explanatory and intentionally misspelled "The Zeplin Song" ("Why does the song remain the same?" she quite reasonably inquires).
The list goes on, and Love never fails to note where she stands in all of this. Like a boasting, battling MC, she promises hope (she's going to "come and save the day"), threatens danger (she knows "where you live" and she's "coming for you") and brags that when all is said and done, she's still going to be the best you'll ever have ("You'll never ever ever f--- like me/ So baby why why do you even try?").
Love's at her best when she links her bravado to raging riffs, as in "Hello." You almost believe she'll deliver the goods when she sings, "You're going to hear the lost chord tonight." That chord's a myth, of course, and not every promise can be fulfilled.
America's Sweetheart embraces other contradictions as well. "Hold on to Me" is about vulnerability, and she has said it was inspired by the time she stayed up all night scribbling poetry with Russell Crowe, broke down in tears and had to be comforted in his arms. Yet the song is sung as though she were the strong one offering comfort rather than needing it.
"Sunset Strip," meanwhile, concerns a girl who's either moving or about to kill herself. It mourns her position at
first, then celebrates her self-destruction and "no tomorrow,"
defiantly listing all the reasons she pops pills: "I got
pills 'cause I'm bored/ I got pills 'cause you're dead/ I got pills 'cause you're not the one".
The bottom-heavy, bluesy "All the Drugs" takes the addiction theme further, as if the layered guitars' texture imparts meaning to the damage and delight implied by "all the drugs in the world."
Love's always more impressive as a banshee than as a sweetheart — even she realizes this, swiping at her most tender moment on the album, a nostalgic power ballad, by giving it the title "Uncool." She's a fascinatingly messy bundle of contradictions, a destroyer and creator in equal parts, who gives voice to things we dare not say. America's Sweetheart may not save rock and roll — but can anything?