Pop CD of the week: Courtney Love, America's Sweetheart

The psychodrama of Courtney Love's life has inspired some great pop music, says Kitty Empire. But not this time

America's Sweetheart (Virgin)

The title is, of course, deeply ironic. Courtney Love may have been the late Kurt Cobain's sweetheart, but much of America has long regarded her as rock's Typhoid Mary.

Currently battling for custody of her daughter by Cobain (after a near overdose of prescription drugs last year), Love's widowhood has been punctuated by incident. There have been ugly scenes outside the home of her producer (and ex-partner) Jim Barber, vitriolic posts on the internet, public rows with Cobain's mother, arrests for air rage and the odd charming, stolen scene - like when Love crashed an Elton John soiree in London last year wearing a Donald Duck costume.

Even before Kurt's death, Nirvana fans had vilified her as a gold-digger. Her fitness as a mother was already at issue a decade ago, when allegations that she took heroin while pregnant blew up in Vanity Fair. Love is now seeking a publishing deal for her diaries.

Courtney Love, the artist, musician and songwriter, has got a little lost in this bog of misdemeanours and muck-raking. It's been six long years since the release of Celebrity Skin, the final, excellent album by Love's previous band Hole (in the interim, she has fought to free herself from her old record contract and acted in films). Those solely familiar with Love from gossip pages - as someone famous for being infamous - may be stunned to learn she can play guitar.

The point of America's Sweetheart, then, is to get her old job back. And a promotion. Her three-album deal with Virgin presupposes sales far greater than those of Celebrity Skin, her most commercial work to date. To this end, Love has hired soft rock producer Linda Perry - the woman behind Pink's Missundaztood album - and even Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin (his efforts turn up on 'Uncool'). The musical climate suits Love: rock remains in the ascendant and her style has been assiduously copied by Brody Dalle of The Distillers, who guests here as well.

In contrast to Celebrity Skin - Love's tribute to high-gloss, LA coke-rock - this is a noisy, punkish album, full of posturing, big choruses and buzzsaw riffs. It casts Love as a queen returning from exile to wrest back rock's prizes from the boys. 'Is this the part in the book where I'm gonna come and save the day?' she pouts on the opener, 'Mono'.

America's Sweetheart is littered with references to other music - 'But Julian I'm A Little Older Than You' addresses the Strokes's singer; there's the (purposely misspelt) 'Zeplin Song', dozens of lyrical asides and out-and-out musical steals. The piquantly-titled 'I'll Do Anything', for instance, quotes the riff from Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and the 'woo-hoo' chorus from its copy, Blur's 'Song 2'. These allusions are there to remind us what a well-versed pop theorist Love is - and that anything these guys can do, she can do better. 'Hey God, you owe me one more song/ So I can prove to them/ That I'm so much better than him,' she drawls - 'him' being every man from Eminem to Cobain himself.

Regrettably, though, Love doesn't quite triumph over all. Half the problem is that rock doesn't need saving. It is doing fine in the hands of The White Stripes, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, and The Distillers. America's Sweetheart is a good album, rather than a great one.

Its epiphanies occur when Love abandons her usual templates (big riff, banshee bawl) for something new - like the Robert Plant blues wail on 'Life Despite God', the most genuinely troubled (and therefore, genuinely affecting) song on the record. 'All The Drugs', meanwhile, rocks like Jane's Addiction - a radical departure for Love.

The big, soft-focus ballads - like 'Hold Onto Me', written, absurdly enough, after an emotional night out with Russell Crowe - work well. They certainly break up the strops about drugs ('I take pills 'cos you're dead' is one curiously unmoving lyric) and setting things on fire that make up the bulk of America's Sweetheart . Gone are the lucid, poignant treatises about beauty, fame and glamour ('Miss World', 'Pretty On The Inside', 'Celebrity Skin') that made Love one of the most insightful Californians ever to wield a guitar. In their place are bouncy rants that will be fun to mosh to, but fail utterly to involve you emotionally. Love's psychodramas - and her ability to wring great pop music from them - have long been her not-so-secret weapons. America's Sweetheart finds her strangely disarmed.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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