When they were released, the Use Your Illusion I/II albums were the first that struck me as having a sense of theatrics that gave Guns N’ Roses a larger-than-life image in my mind. Even as a ten-year-old, I recognized these guys as rock stars, something that stood in stark contrast to the anti-fame image portrayed by Pearl Jam and Nirvana at the time. I ended up working backwards with GN’R, discovering Appetite for Destruction sometime after the Use Your Illusions (I’ll often refer to the two releases as a single unit, as they came out at the same time and were intended to be a musical whole).
The albums are grandiose and sprawling. Looking back, a good deal of the two is filler. Combining the two could have yielded one of the best albums of all time, but instead, both play second fiddle to their earlier work on Appetite for Destruction.
The first album opens with guitar riffs and a pounding snare drum. Axl’s entry is mostly unintelligible, up until the title chorus of “Right Next Door to Hell”. The screeching vocals are nothing new and this song has nothing to make it stand out. Mercifully, it is short.
“Dust and Bones” has a bit of a twang to it and is notably different, as it is sung by rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin. It has a nice instrumental break that fits in well with the feel of the song.
The first cover song on the album is “Live and Let Die”. The song itself needs no introduction to music buffs or to those familiar with the old James Bond film of the same title. McCartney’s orchestral break is replaced by heavy guitar riffs in the GN’R version. The song is remarkably true to its roots and plays well as an update for the hard rock genre.
“Don’t Cry (Original)” is the first song that elevates the album beyond hard rock and starts to get into the orchestration that makes this album worth returning to. It is a ballad, played slowed down, and features hints of vocal harmony. The subject of lost love is nothing new to rock. About halfway through the song, the guitars jump to life. Slash’s wailing solo is prominently featured, leading to the bridge and final chorus. The breakdown is memorable: “Baby … maybe … someday” is a line that I still remember twenty years later, as is the haunting reverb to close the tune.
The next song returns to the unintelligible, screeching verses. “Perfect Crime” plays like cats on speed for the most part, save some weird distorted vocal break about halfway through. There is no breathing room here.
“You Ain’t the First” opens with a count-off. This is not notable in rock, particularly in monster arena rock songs. What is notable is that the count is in 3/4 time and is followed by acoustic guitars. It is as if all of the breathing room removed from the previous song was reallocated here. This is another Izzy Stradlin song and is also noteworthy because it features the late Shannon Hoon (later of Blind Melon fame) on vocals.
The twang is back on “Bad Obsession” and here, it works better than it did earlier in the album. It’s relatively easy to understand Rose’s vocals, which is also a nice surprise. This is one of the non-mainstream standouts on the album, a song that, probably due to a few choice lyrics, I have never heard on the radio. Its content is a retrospective on drug use, something that is nothing new as well.
Finally, a song that could have belonged on Appetite for Destruction (perhaps with a faster tempo). “Back Off Bitch” is a nice, angry, breakup song. The lyrics are trite (“Face of an angel with the love of a witch” is one of the rhyming lines), but real. The guitar solo saves this song, musically.
“Double Talkin’ Jive” is a fun song that is essentially over in a minute and a half, save for the guitar solo, which is a good one. It’s not the cleanest of Slash’s solos, but he uses the wailing high notes to good effect. The song breaks down to a bare picked guitar line in the last minute, giving it one of the stranger endings I have heard.
If it weren’t for the earlier inclusion of “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain” would have truly come out of nowhere on this album. If you watched MTV in 1991, there was no escaping this song. It is a masterful epic that clocks in at almost nine minutes (great for those “just one more song” requests when I was a kid). Having not been exposed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video until later, this one clearly stood out compared to many of its peers (excepting Pearl Jam’s video for “Jeremy”) and established the music video as an art form in my mind.
“November Rain” knows it is an epic. It is not shy or self-conscious about that fact. Slash’s solos draw attention in the music, but even more so in the video, where he plays them in a dusty church courtyard. This song is near symphonic, with clear “movements” and orchestral backing. As if the Elton John comparisons weren’t enough, GN’R played this song with the not-yet Sir at the MTV Video Music Awards. The song’s conclusion is one for the books: screaming guitar, comping piano, and lyrics that evoke something between a chant and a scream.
The video for “November Rain” was so powerful, that it is almost a disservice to the song itself. I find it impossible to listen to the song without the video imagery in my head. The blues of the bedroom, the orange-brown landscape of the church, the helicopter fly by shot of Slash’s first solo in the church courtyard after he leaves the wedding ceremony, the rain-ruined reception, and the harsh juxtaposition of the funeral, also rain-spoiled, all stand out.
“The Garden” is not a let-down from “November Rain”, something that is fortunate for the album flow. In fact, the remainder of the songs on UYI1 work pretty well together. The song is part hedonistic and part flat-out nuts. The semi-spoken chorus, delivered by Alice Cooper, is one of the creepiest parts of the album.
The previous song is not to be confused with the next, “Garden of Eden”. This song is the first I can recall that required a lyrics display during the video (another notable one that comes to mind is Snow’s “Informer”). The song is a rant in the spirit of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. GN’R keeps it short enough that the tone doesn’t wear away the message.
It’s not a problem you can stop, it’s rock and roll
It’s interesting that “Don’t Damn Me” follows a song that is a pure rant. It’s apologetic in its anti-apology stance. Here, Axl says he doesn’t want to hear any criticism for speaking his mind. Whether or not that is truly right is up to the listener. For “Garden of Eden”, maybe. For something like “One in a Million”, not so much.
“Bad Apples” has an appropriate title and the cliché is carried all the way through. It’s musically unremarkable, save for yet another pretty good guitar solo. It seems like that’s the GN’R formula for saving what would otherwise have been a crappy song.
The final two songs can be taken together as the before and after of a suicide attempt. The album leads us to this point from a path that includes the consequences of fame, the meaning of life, lost love, searching for meaning in empty relationships, drug use and the shady characters that inhabit such a life, then a final lash out at the world. All of this is from the protagonist trying to feel something, anything in this life that is more than fleeting.
“Dead Horse” is the suicide note. The quiet intro absolutely explodes into the hard rock the GN’R is known for. The protagonist feels stuck in the monotony of his life—his relationships, his experiences—none of it changes for him. It is possible that the “suicide note” itself is the bookends of the song, a recorded note. This is reinforced by the tape rewinding sound that concludes the track.
After the suicide attempt by this unknown protagonist, he ends up in a coma. The song documents the character’s internal struggle between the desire to leave this world and his body’s natural tendency to choose life. The setting is very literal, complete with heartbeat and other sounds from a hospital. However, the song also compares the character’s life to a coma as well, something that builds on the feelings revealed in the previous song. “Coma” features an quiet interlude that could be compared with that of “Estranged” (from UYI2), which is interrupted by his resuscitation (and guitar solo, of course).
The song concludes with the character realizing that they are responsible for their actions, including the present situation. The final verse is followed by what feels like a stream-of-consciousness that ends with accepting life.
But if home is where the heart is
Then there’s stories to be told
No you don’t need a doctor
No one else can heal your soul
“Coma” ends with screeching feedback and a single, thudding drum beat, leaving it difficult to tell whether the character actually lives or dies. With apologies to the mainstream and the “November Rain” fans, “Coma” is the best song on the album, and perhaps the best of GN’R's career.
I promised a twofer, but this post is long enough to stand on its own. Stay tuned for Use Your Illusion II.