Album Review: Courtney Love's 'Nobody's Daughter'

It's a tough choice that every fan of post-punk, second-wave grunge, power-pop, and/or riot-grrl traditions has to make individually—whether or not to keep paying attention to Courtney Love. If you root for the bad-ass alloy on your female rock icons to remain forever bulletproof, looking away from Love is a move that's as understandable as it is steeped in resignation. After a decade lost to tabloid dramas of the child-custody and scary-plastic-surgery varieties (not to mention that awful America's Sweetheart solo album in 2004), you could be forgiven for plugging your ears "la-la-la, can't-hear-you" style and protecting your '90s-vintage image of an in-command artist who could work both sides of the indie/mainstream divide: fronting three good-to-great Hole albums (Live Through This was the great one) and also turning in a strong performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt. That was a Love who was easy to admire.

One thing to remember about periods of unwelcome vulnerability in artists is that a self-destructive interlude sometimes sets you up for a pleasant surprise. Twelve years since the last time her voice managed to dominate a song, Love is back with 11 of them in which you can hear it ring with hard-won authority. Though it's important not to get carried away. Nobody's Daughterisn't a perfect piece of work; it just barely counts as "good." Love's current band—missing original Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, with whom she has fallen out—is pretty anonymous-sounding. As a result, too many of the new songs win you over in their back halves, when Love hoists the whole enterprise on her back and guts out the last repetitions of a refrain. But still, after the decade she's had, a win's a win.

Without making excuses for the way Love botched the 2000s, the small achievement that Nobody's Daughterrepresents looks more impressive when you consider the female rock icons who have had to deal with taking a hiatus or a credibility hit in decade No. 2. (For the purposes of this discussion, I'll acknowledge that the whole "women in rock" category can seem arbitrary. I'm therefore going to limit it to punkishly hued rock, and say that, for example, Madonna doesn't count. Especially since Madge brings to mind Duke Ellington's formulation of being "beyond category"—an exception to virtually every rule.) Starting in 1975, Patti Smith cut one brilliant record annually, four years running, before taking a pass through most of the '80s. Joan Jett put out a steady stream of records for 11 years, before observing a decadelong break starting in the '90s. Meantime, Liz Phair received exactly a two-record leash before haters started lacerating her reputation—for changing too much, being too pop, becoming too Gap-ad mainstream sexy. (Phair, whose second-decade records are better than their reputation would lead you to believe, was last heard from in 2008, when she was writing the theme music for a short-lived CBS dramedy Swingtown.)

Even in rock realms buried further underground, the trend persists. Love's riot-grrl rival Kathleen Hanna enjoyed a brilliant career for one decade, between her service in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. The fantastic trio of women in Sleater-Kinney put out albums for an 11-year span: 1995 through 2005. (The band's guitarist-vocalist, Carrie Brownstein, maintains an excellent music blog for NPR.com, however.) The fact that you can maybe think of the odd exception here or there—say, PJ Harvey or Chan Marshall—doesn't mean that we can't see that for the most part there's a big old clock on the wall for women in alt-rock: one decade of relevance, drop into a black hole, and then let's see if you can fight your way back. It's probable, naturally, that some of these women may have simply chosen to hang up their guitar straps for certain periods of time, and thus quit music on their own terms instead of being crushed under the heel of some mysterious, patriarchal Doc Martens boot. But then again, the statistical problem of having a small sample size isn't exactly unrelated to the fact that we could use more female rock icons in the mix, year in and year out. (Marnie Stern, please never go away. Same goes for you, Joanna Newsom.)

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And so we return to Love. The fact that she's rebooting Hole without any of the original members suggests a couple of things: she knows a good brand when she sees one, and she perhaps doesn't feel comfortable stepping out under her own moniker just yet. (And yes, while it was rumored of late that Love even intended to change her name to Courtney Michelle, that typically gonzo morsel has been walked back by her publicists.) But on that latter point, it's instructive to recall that a demo version of Nobody's Daughterwas leaked to the Web in late 2009, and was credited, solo, to Courtney Love—even though the album was co-written with a number of artists, including Linda Perry and Billy Corgan. That leaked sequence of songs contained a more contemplative read on several of these new numbers, in lieu of the nostalgia-baiting rock crunch on the official product. Current single "Pacific Coast Highway" even had a countryish, slide-guitar lick—a touch that hasn't carried over to the recording that's now on sale. The leaked demo also came without the song that's currently doing some real damage to rock radio, a cathartic stomper titled "Skinny Little Bitch." Even though, as NPR music critic Maura Johnston has observed, its two-chord riff in the verse owes a real debt to the old Bratmobile anthem "Bitch Theme," there's an appreciable nugget of something new in Love's lyric. While at first blush the track seems to be another entrant in the girl-fight meme—as Love icily warns the unnamed "bitch" not to "f--k with me"—it seems clear that this is Love talking to the drug-addled, emaciated, recent version of herself, the one who was compulsively "staring at the mirror." As a kiss-off to a deranged former persona, it beats anything Axl Rose was able to give us on Chinese Democracy. Sure, it's too early to tell whether Love can build on her modest success and get a good third decade going. But swearing off f--king with herself will do for now.

Album Review: Courtney Love's 'Nobody's Daughter' | Culture