Ten thoughts on re-listening to Guns n’ Roses “Use Your Illusion”

While snowed in, I cued up GnR’s 1991 magnum opus Use Your Illusion. Two CDs, Thirty songs, 150 minutes of music. I love it, I know it backward and forward, but I hadn’t listened to much of it in years. (I get a charge-up of “Locomotive” about once a month.) Let’s cinch up our kilts and tighten up our bandannas, shall we? Full albums embedded below if you’d like to listen along as we go.

GnR was the last of the Gods of Rock. Look, regardless of whether you think the History of Rock is a procession of titans or a cavalcade of guitar-wankers for skinny white boys, you’ve got to admit 1. that the procession of bands from Zeppelin to Sabbath to Van Halen to GnR was as much a cultural phenomenon as a musical one and 2. GnR was the last of the self-aware mythology-creating Pantheon Bands. (You could make a case for Metallica, perhaps, but that band is its own worst enemy.) The rise of maudlin proto-hipsters like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan starved the oxygen from harder-edged rock; never again will a dude be able to solo like this without drenching the whole affair in winking, mocking irony:

And you know what? That’s a bit of a shame.

Use Your Illusion was late … or what we thought “late” was. I saw GnR live in June 1991 in Hampton, Virginia. At that point, UYI was already a few weeks late, and they promised it would be in stores very soon. (If memory serves, Axl was blaming everyone else but himself.) As it turned out, the CDs dropped in mid-September, about three months after when they’d been expected. Compare that to Chinese Democracy, which dropped about a decade after it had been expected. We will not see another GnR album, but our grandchildren might.

September 1991 was the greatest period in rock history. Get this: UYI was released on September 17, 1991. Less than a month before, Metallica’s Black Album and Pearl Jam’s Ten had arrived in your local mall store. One week later, both Nevermind and BloodSugarSexMagik were released. That’s five of the most important albums in rock history released within about a month of each other. Whew. Thank heaven we had CD players that could play 5 CDs at once!

“Right Next Door To Hell” kicks your teeth in. This is the perfect opener: Duff McKagan’s insanely sinister bass riff, barely-staying-on-the-tracks guitar, Axl screaming his fool head off about a nicotine/caffeine/sugar fix. Put aside the cartoons that all these guys, particularly Axl, became — this is a sledgehammer of an opening song, and even now, it almost sounds relevant. Almost.

This whole damn album sounds like a glazed donut. There’s a sheen over everything that files all the rough edges off Slash’s guitar and Axl’s voice. The drums have that “classic” (i.e. painfully dated) big-arena echo. The entire album sounds exactly like it’s supposed to — tailor-made for dudebro stadium shows — and, sonically, it’s aged about as well as most dudebros do.

Use Your Illusion is a monument to Too Much. During the making of this album, somebody — probably a lowly production assistant — told Axl that maybe 17 nonsensical vocal overdubs was enough to get the point across. That person has been missing for 23 years and is moldering in a lonely California desert grave. His family still misses him.

“November Rain” will give you diabetes.
Seriously. Be careful when you listen to it. But on the plus side, it’s very easy to play on the piano — it’s in the key of C Major, which means you only use the white keys, no blacks (hey! easy metaphor here!) but still sound kind of sensitive for the ladies. Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” used the same compositional trick, to equal lighter-raising, groupie-nailing effect.

Beneath the sludge, there’s a hell of an album here. The meanest riffs on this album are downright brutal: “Dust n’ Bones,” “Locomotive,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Right Next Door To Hell” and “Pretty Tied Up” have some next-level guitar. But this was a case where the words and the music were completely at odds with each other, whether it was the naive politics in “Civil War” (“What’s so civil ’bout war anyway?” Really?) or the kneejerk misogyny in “Back Off Bitch” and “Pretty Tied Up.” Like Eminem and Kanye would a decade-plus later, Axl wore his every emotion on his sleeve, and gave voice to every single thought that crossed his mind during the 1991-93 era. The backlash from that has most likely kept Rose on a Howard Hughes trajectory ever since.

“My World” is just awful. If you were making a list of the worst songs by the best bands, you’d have, off the top of my head, “Hot Dog” by Zeppelin, “Mother” by The Police, “Queen of the Supermarket” by Springsteen, “Lemon” by U2, “Short and Curlies” by the Stones, and “Top Jimmy” by Van Halen. “My World” is the worst of them all, just pure self-indulgence. We could say it was proto-EDM, presaging a new, more sterile era of computer-driven rock … but, nah. It’s not.

“Estranged” is outstanding. Let’s go out on a good, sustained Les Paul Sunburst note. You know what? After all the crap this album got, after all the over-the-top absurdity that accompanied its release, Axl et al. hit their high-water mark on one song: “Estranged.” This is their “Kashmir,” the epic they’d been working toward their entire career. It’s over-the-top, it’s overreaching, it’s way too much of everything … and it’s flat-out perfect. And I’ll throw you through a wedding cake if you say different.

Here’s “Estranged” and the rest of both the UYI albums for your review and listening pleasure:

Got another re-listen you’d recommend? Leave it in the comments below.

Jay

5 Responses to “Ten thoughts on re-listening to Guns n’ Roses “Use Your Illusion”

  • I also enjoyed Garden of Eden as well as Coma. Long songs such as November Rain, Estranged and Coma help me when in traffic jam even today.

    Great post! Thanks.

  • Thank you! I went through a phase where I cycled through every single song and dissected it down to its root elements. Garden of Eden was a good punk throwback; Coma was just creepy, even if it was totally staged.

  • I preferred Part II, due to the hard riffs and Axl’s variety of screeches/notes — even the alternate Don’t Cry was decent.

    Maybe it’s because “You Could Be Mine” always reminds me of one of my favorite films in the 90s, Terminator 2.. they were just joined at the hip from the start. And I completely agree — Estranged is a phenomenal track, as well as the solo sections from Slash on Locomotive.

    But, please, don’t ever, ever combine that word “hipster” in the same paragraph as Corgan, Vedder or Cobain. We could argue the origins of “alternative” or “grunge”.. but no. Just no. :)

  • I suppose I’m an older generation than you, but I see this set of music as a desperate attempt at trying to regain old glory. Similar to what Led Zeppelin went through. If you’re a die hard fan you’re all for it. Someone with some distance may hear/see it differently. This is coming from someone who still bangs his head to Appetite for Destruction on a regular basis.

  • Craig: I’m with you on I & II, for the exact reasons you specified. Yep, Terminator II soundtrack — I snuck into a theater as the movie was ending just to hear that song. (And Cobain, et al, whom I love and will write about soon, WERE the original hipsters — before the slacker clowns of today ground that word into paste.)

    David: I think you’re exactly right. They went off the tracks midway through the making of this album. It should’ve been their Physical Graffiti, a defining statement — instead it was too much of everything.

    Thanks for commenting, gentlemen.

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