Man, this is an intimidating review. Conceptually supposed to be two albums, but come on, I don’t think anybody really treats them as anything other than one monolith, this is two packed CDs, each almost seventy-six(!) minutes, with a total of 30 tracks. This felt ridiculous at the time, but now, good God, nobody would get away with this kind of indulgence. I mean, this isn’t like one CD and then a deluxe CD with alternate mixes, this is, with the exception of the two versions of “Don’t Cry” (there’s an indulgence that should have been left behind), all entirely new material.
This is where Axl really starts to get weird, like in the super famous can’t handle it Michael Jackson kinda way, but swap out the pedophilia for misogyny. Before the Chinese Democracy craziness and delays, which put these to shame, there was the Use Your Illusion era of delays and craziness. The album was delayed several times with Axl reportedly scrapping entire albums’ worth of finished work at least once. Then he jumped into the crowd in St. Louis to fight somebody taking a picture (just re-read that sentence in 2015, good God) and the place rioted when the band quit because, again, somebody was taking. his. picture. I can’t even. And then, and this could only have happened in the CD-crazy 90’s, the band announced they’re going to release two albums, both with the same name, on the same day.
The anticipation was nuts. I remember this being one of those CDs I bought at midnight (remember that tradition?). And my initial reaction was that I hated them. Looking back, I hated them, for the most part, because, while the overall proportion of filler isn’t all that bad, when you have this much content a small proportion adds up to a decent amount. They were getting away from their guitar/drums hard-and-fast recipe, and when they did it wasn’t always all that good, and so I rejected it. And the better songs took a little longer to sink in.
But here’s the thing. These albums are really fucking good. I mean, no, they’re not as good as Appetite For Destruction, but in the annals of bands trying to follow up impossibly good albums, this is a damned fine entry. (Off the top of my head, Nirvana’s In Utero leads the class and I can’t think of any others I’d place as high as this one.) And, yeah, 30 tracks is way too many, but if you took, say, the best 15 tracks here and made an album with just those, well, for one it would be more than 80 minutes, but it’d be right up there with Appetite for quality, and I think you’d still be leaving quite a bit of good stuff on the cutting room floor.
And these discs are just steeped in legend. For example, it’s often said that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out on the same day. It was actually a week later, but Nirvana also gets associated with Michael Jackson’s Dangerous which came out a couple of months later, but that’s the holiday season during which Nevermind was blowing up.
Good God, I’m this far in and I still haven’t started the review proper. Okay, let’s firebomb our way through this thing. And, hell, I’m just making this up as I go, let’s just do this like White Album style and do it in like four sides.
We’ll call side one from “Right Next Door To Hell” (obvs) through “Back Off Bitch.” Okay, so right there, the misogyny. And I’ll be honest, it didn’t really strike me when I was 16. But it bothers me now. Anyway, Axl has some issues with women, and they are not represented well here. There’s no excuse for it, and I don’t mean to sidestep it, but I’m going to be here forever if I spend more time on it, so let’s just agree it’s a big black mark on his musical legacy and move on. Now, the thing about side 1 is that it’s the most bluesy, roots-rocky of all of them, which was something I was really rejecting at this point in my life, being more into alternate tunings and the like. But here you’ve got a very bright sound, and kind of a punky aggression to things that also didn’t fit with my broody metal mood. But I like almost all of these songs. I never need to hear “You Ain’t The First” (I could go on a tangent about how they cycle through lead singers on this album–it’s Izzy here–but I won’t) again and I’d like to change the lyrics to “Back Off,” but I want seven of these modified eight tracks in my collection. They’re great. And that still makes it like only the third-best side of the four.
Then side two is the rest of Use Your Illusion I. In these eight tracks, we have six really likes, one mix CD candidate, and the best song ever, “Coma,” which is 10:08 and, amazingly, justifies every second of that length, an excellent marathon of rhapsodic bliss, except the parts where all the women are stereotypically nagging him non-stop (see Rose, Axl – misogyny) and the doctors have some office politics tension in their voices. This is my favorite side. Take away “Garden Of Eden,” which has its place (but not here), and it’s just non-stop awesomeness for seven straight tracks. The last four are an amazing journey that should never have been buried so deep behind so much roots rock.
That brings us to side three, or the first side of the “night album” of the two. We’ll say this runs from “Civil War” to “Shotgun Blues.” This is the worst of the four sides. Their version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is great, and the first three tracks are very good, except the lyrics to “Civil War” are so naive and linguistically confused that it’s tough to listen to. After those four, though, we have two of the worst songs in the bunch. “Get In The Ring” is actually a pretty good song, but the lyrics are so petulantly juvenile with the band swearing so often in so much manufactured rage it feels like one big testosterone-filled stupid fest. “Shotgun Blues” keeps up the hating on other people (Axl really had some issues), but is another fine-but-not-great entry into Guns N’ Roses efforts to occasionally be a punk band (their next release The Spaghetti Incident, comprised a set of punk covers).
Now, the next two songs, “Breakdown” and “Pretty Tied Up,” respectively, lead off my side four. And, if they’d been reversed, I would have had the a-little-bit-silly, a-little-bit-misogynstic “Pretty Tied Up” close out side three. But I can’t have “Breakdown,” which is either the second, third, or fourth best song on the album (“Coma” of course, “Dead Horse”, and “You Could Be Mine”) not be on side four, the second best side in the bunch. Totally epic with a great piano line, this one’s buried in the middle of the second album right behind a song where the band thinks we want to hear them yell at the editors of Circus and Spin magazines by name while pretending to care about the “kids spending their hard earned money.” “Breakdown” is almost certainly the best GnR song nobody’s ever heard, though that might also be “Locomotive,” which so wonderfully nearly falls apart at the “run off the tracks” lyric. Take a breather for “So Fine,” the Duff-sung song that would be a lot better if it weren’t for those orgasm-like sighs, which are just super uncomfortable to listen to with their close-mic’d moaning, in the beginning. “Estranged” is wonderful, if a bit too long, and completes the trilogy begun with “November Rain” (see, I didn’t even have time to talk about “November Rain” back on side two, that’s how much there is here) and “Don’t Cry.” Then there’s “You Could Be Mine.” A bit about that song: it was the first single off the albums and featured in Terminator 2. It came out before the albums did and, to take you back to the level of anticipation…imagine that all you’ve ever heard from Guns N’ Roses was Appetite, Lies, and then this song. This song is amazing and totally in the vein of Appetite but just a bit older and wiser. I mean, I think people forget how amazing this song was and what we thought it meant that we were going to get two albums’ worth of material this good in just a few months. And it’s basically buried as the last song in the collection because then you have the alternate version of “Don’t Cry,” which, I mean, why bother, and then Axl’s “My World” rap, which is mostly unfortunate though Axl’s ridiculous levels of talent keep it from being a total disaster in spite of his efforts. Reportedly the rest of the band didn’t know the song existed until the albums came out.
Anyway, there’s no way to appreciate this from a review. I don’t even think you can appreciate it all in 20 listens. I’ve been listening for over 20 years and I’m still not sure I’ve got it all.
Filed Between: Guns N’ Roses’ Lies and Chinese Democracy
Best Song Ever: “Coma”
Mix: “Dead Horse,” “Breakdown,” “You Could Be Mine”
Really Like: “Right Next Door To Hell,” “Live And Let Die,” “Don’t Cry (Original Version),” “Double Talkin’ Jive,” “November Rain,” “The Garden,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Bad Apples,” “Civil War,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Estranged”
Like: “Dust N’ Bones,” “Perfect Crime,” “Bad Obsession,” “Garden Of Eden,” “14 Years,” “Yesterdays,” “Shotgun Blues,” “Pretty Tied Up,” “Don’t Cry (Alternate Version)”
Meh: “You Ain’t The First,” “Back Off Bitch,” “So Fine,” “My World”
Dislike: “Get In The Ring”
Song Notes: After the jump
Use Your Illusion I
- Right Next Door To Hell
- Dust N’ Bones – Izzy sings
- Live And Let Die – Jesus I didn’t even get to talk about this Wings cover
- Don’t Cry (Original Version) – nice big end
- Perfect Crime – reminds of “Mr. Brownstone”
- You Ain’t The First – Izzy again
- Bad Obsession – harmonica, like it if I’m in the right mood. Doesn’t need to be 5:30.
- Back Off Bitch – great start, hate lyrics
- Double Talkin’ Jive – Izzy doing percussive vox. Slash rules.
- November Rain – ends so strong
- The Garden – Alice Cooper. Slash kills it. A bit too slow for love.
- Garden of Eden – punky
- Don’t Damn Me –
- Bad Apples – great start
- Dead Horse
Use Your Illusion II
- Civil War – does Axl know what a civil war, or The Civil War, is?
- 14 Years – Izzy singing again
- Yesterdays –
- Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – boy they’re really covering the masters here, aren’t they?
- Get In The Ring
- Shotgun Blues – I like it if I ignore the lyrics, especially the bit about the IQ
- Breakdown – great piano. not crazy about spoken word at end but otherwise perfect.
- Pretty Tied Up
- Locomotive – great piano
- So Fine – Duff’s vocal orgasms make me uncomfortable but gets a lot better after that start
- Estranged – love big parts
- You Could Be Mine – almost six minutes
- Don’t Cry (Alternate Version)
- My World – also some sounds here that make me uncomfortable