Hole's "Celebrity Skin" is the year's most controversial album even though it won't be released for another three months.
It's still so early in the release process that preview copies haven't yet been sent to media, but much of the rock world already seems to have an opinion about the CD.
The reason: Courtney Love, the group's mercurial leader.
"Live Through This," the band's gripping 1994 album, may have been the consensus choice of U.S. pop critics as the year's best collection, but Love lost credibility in a lot of rock eyes when she became an actress.
Despite her strong performance as flamboyant stripper-turned-junkie Althea Flynt in the 1996 film "The People vs. Larry Flynt," it was disconcerting for many of Hole's fans to see the one-time queen of the grunge-punk scene joining the Hollywood glamour crowd.
Love's image took another hit following the unflattering portrait of her in the current "Kurt & Courtney," a rather silly documentary that has been taken surprisingly seriously in some quarters.
Mostly, however, the backlash is over Love's new Hollywood ZIP Code.
"When Courtney showed up at the Oscars wearing that Versace dress, it was like she had morphed into the glamour world," says one prominent record industry publicist whose views seem to echo much industry thinking.
"For her old fans, it was like a slap in the face. She had joined the enemy . . . the glitzy world . . . with the reported plastic surgery and all. And they aren't going to forget that when the new album comes out. I can't remember when an album by a major artist has faced so much skepticism."
But the real test, as always, rests with the music . . . and Love and her band appear to have that on their side in this battle. Hole's record company, Geffen Records, is very high on the album's commercial potential.
Eager to get a head start in countering the possible backlash, Love has begun playing "Celebrity Skin" for a few people around town--and the music, notably "Boys on the Radio" and "Hit So Hard," is filled with the kind of attractive, melodic hooks that are instantly appealing.
Rather than return to the raw, punk style of "Live Through This," the new album has more of a classic, mainstream feel. But the music (much of it co-written by Love, Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson and the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan) retains a passionate center and Love's lyrics have considerable bite.
In the title track from the album, which is scheduled to be released Sept. 8, she even pokes fun at her own controversial image.
The song begins with these lines:
Oh make me over
I'm all I wanna be
A walking study
There is enough darkness and references to death in the songs to keep critics and fans busy for weeks trying to piece together references to her late husband, Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994.
Yet there is also a surprising amount of sweetness amid the pain, including a couple of love songs. The most ambitious tune is the gentlest: an acoustic, near stream-of-consciousness meditation titled "Northern Star."
In a brief conversation after playing the unmastered CD in a Hollywood recording studio, Love is her usual, outspoken self when asked if she is worried about a backlash over Versace gowns.
"What boomer decided you had to be a proletariat in denim to make good music?" she snaps. "Who made that rule? Men? Boys? Boomers? I have to obey a rule? [Expletive.] They can kiss my ass.
"I refuse to be reactive. I don't know when to be scared, thank God. . . . It's such a stupid context. You mean you can't go out and be fabulous and have a fabulous time? That's been my agenda for my whole life. If I went out to see the Gun Club [years ago], I would be as fabulous as I could possibly afford to be. . . . Outrageously vain? That's me, honey."
She says the main reason the tone of Hole's music has shifted to a more melodic, pop-rock style is that she has gained a better understanding of chords and the songwriting craft over the last few years.
"The triumph I feel is to be finally able to write pop," she says.
"Why shouldn't you grow and change and keep adapting? Look what I come from . . . a pretty dark place. . . . Thank God, I'm not where I was five years ago. . . ."
LOVE SONGS?: The lyrics to "Heaven Tonight," the most optimistic song on the new Hole album, contain words you rarely hear in the world of punk: "I love you."
"I know, I know," Love says, almost blushing. "I've never said that before. When I recorded it, there were a bunch of New York hipsters in the room and I made them turn off the light . . . it's so personal."
Another love song on "Celebrity Skin" is "Hit So Hard," which is a new song partially inspired by "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," an old Goffin-King song that is rarely performed anymore because of its violent connotation. This time, the symbolism of "hit" is more akin to being swept off your feet by someone.
"We used to cover 'He Hit Me' and I wanted to elevate that and make it more spiritual," Love says. "I wrote a lot about my boyfriend. . . ."
Though it is one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood that Love has long been involved with acclaimed young actor Edward Norton (he was featured in "Larry Flynt"), Love refuses to give her boyfriend's name or acknowledge whom "Heaven Tonight" is about.
"I don't want to say who that is," she says when asked. "But lately I feel I am [getting ready] to start."