GUNS N’ ROSES – Use Your Illusion I & Use Your Illusion II (1991 Geffen)
In my review for Guns N’ Roses’ smashing debut Appetite For Destruction, I stated that “Appetite is great, but Illusions are better”. A strong and controversial statement. How could I say such a thing?
Use Your Illusion I and II are a case of “Bigger, Better, Faster, More!” Consider:
Certainly in terms of length, Illusions are far bigger: 2 hours and 32 minutes compared to 53 minutes for Appetite. I concede that the Illusions albums have far more filler than Appetite. Given that the grand total of awesome material on Illusions still exceeds the length of Appetite, I think “Bigger” is a given. They made us wait and wait and wait, but they made it worth our while. You can’t always say that for Guns N’ Roses.
Guns N’ Roses’ lineup was “new and improved!” in 1991. Original drummer Steven Adler was given the boot due to severe issues with substances, replaced by Matt Sorum, who they knew from The Cult. I won’t argue that Matt Sorum is a “better” drummer than Steven Adler, because they are too different. Regardless of this, Sorum was able to expand Guns’ rhythmical pallette. He could play things Adler could not at the time, such as “You Could Me Mine” and “Double Talkin’ Jive”. As for the core members, each of them expanded their own talents on these albums. Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin were now lead vocalists on a few tracks. Slash’s guitar playing grew exponentially. Izzy blossomed as a songwriter with some of Guns’ most diverse material. And Axl Rose really got into the piano, contributing a ton of it, and even the techno influence that would later evolve into Chinese Democracy. His vocal stylings also expanded, with more use of his lower voice. Everybody had gotten…better.
It’s possible that “Right Next Door to Hell” is the fastest Guns track ever recorded. “Perfect Crime” and “Garden of Eden” also qualify.
Guns expanded their official lineup to a six piece with the arrival of keyboardist Dizzy Reed. They also had plenty of special guests: Alice Cooper*, Michael Monroe, and a guy named Shannon Hoon from the then-unknown Blind Melon. Hoon appeared in the “Don’t Cry” music video. Steven Adler was even on “Civil War”, one of the earliest tracks finished. How’s that for more? Not enough? Throw on some orchestras, then.
Of course the weakness to this argument is the old saying that “less is more”, and that theory holds water. Ultimately, it comes down to taste. Do you prefer the nuclear assault of Appetite, or the complex stew of Illusions? Fortunately, you don’t have to choose. You can buy and love them all.
We reviewers, however, are not afforded such luxury. We are expected to rate these things and answer tough questions about why. I cannot deny how I feel about the Illusions albums. I think II tops I, but from first listen, these albums were very special. The ambition, the indulgence, and the time paid off on these albums.
Breaking it down, there are numerous top tier bonafide classics on Use Your Illusion I and II. I think if you boiled the album down to these basic original tracks (colour coded by original album), you’d have a hard time beating it.
- Dust N’ Bones
- Don’t Cry
- Bad Obsession
- Double Talkin’ Jive
- November Rain
- The Garden
- Civil War
- 14 Years
- Pretty Tied Up
- You Could Be Mine
And look…that’s enough for a perfectly awesome single CD. It doesn’t even include the excellent covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Live and Let Die”, both hit singles for Guns. It also excludes dumb but fun stuff like “Get in the Ring”. You know you and your buddies have recited the words. Don’t lie to me!
I always choose to listen to these albums in full, in sequence. I find that to be the best way to go, as they intended it to be.
Appetite showed the world that rock and roll could still be dangerous and loud. The Illusions albums immediately proved that Axl was a hell of a tortured genius. However it’s not a one man show. The dominant songwriter is Izzy Stradlin, with 11 credits on most of the best material. His singing added a Keith Richards rasp to the band’s repertoire as well.
You don’t have to agree with my rating, but I feel that all of the above really overshadows the filler on Use Your Illusion. Some of the material I consider filler were singles. “Dead Horse” and “Garden of Eden” were both hit music videos. The sheer bloat and indulgence of this set was a sharp and delightful contrast to the first waves of back-to-basics grunge bands. It kept Guns on the charts for years.
In a 1991 M.E.A.T Magazine interview, Slash stated that after Appetite, every band in the world copied their style. He challenged bands to try and copy them this time. “To copy us, you’d have to be us.” Slash was correct. Nobody could touch Illusions.
* The story behind the Cooper cameo is that Axl has originally sung all of “The Garden” himself. He sang it in a very Alice Cooper voice, and there was concern it was too close for comfort. So they called up Alice (who they worked with before on “Under My Wheels”) and Alice just nailed “The Garden”.