Sunday, August 29, 2010

A faux-academic deconstruction of Use Your Illusion, composed while drunk.

Since its release in 1968, rock critics and other nerds have been playing the game of "Cut the White Album down to one LP." This game is surely less common these days, as its flaws and foibles have been accepted as a larger portrait of the group in dissolution (that's not to say it's no longer possible - my own CD burn, for example, excludes any song featuring the words "honey" or "pie.")

The early '90s version of this game is less likely to go out of style, as it features a far less beloved, or important, work. Use Your Illusion is generally regarded as the work of a band full of drug addicts, led by an egotist and his quickly bloating sensibilities. And bloated it is: the total time clocks in at over 152 minutes, making it a QUADRUPLE ALBUM. Yeesh. But so, the academic question: is there a quality album buried somewhere in those eight sides? I think there is, and I'm willing to go song-by-song to find it.

(Note: interestingly enough, GNR themselves (or someone on their behalf) have attempted this exercise. We will return to that later on.)

Now, this is 1991 we're talking about here, so we're going to give GNR the benefit of 80 minutes, a double album. They're a gigantically successful band, they're allowed that. So, starting from the top:

"Right Next Door To Hell": Despite Axl's hilarious mid-song shriek of "FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU, BITCH," this is a great, riff-driven opener. STAYS.

"Dust 'n Bones": Not awful, but not sung by the lead singer. Such things are destined for b-sides. Also goes on for-fucking-ever. GOES.

"Live and Let Die": Doofy cover song? I don't care how much time you spent on the fake strings (which, honestly, do sound pretty amazing,) this shit screams b-side. GOES.

"Don't Cry (Original Version)": Fuck. It's really hard to objectively listen to this song after to many years of overexposure, but I think it fills the power ballad slot. Overwrought, sure, but probably the most heartfelt slow song on here. Probably because it was like ten years old by this time. STAYS.

"Perfect Crime": Solid riff, but totally sunk by the lyrics. Any song with a chorus that goes "It's the perfect crime/goddammit it's the perfect crime/motherfucker it's the perfect crime/I SAID IT'S PERFECT!" is laughable. Allowed on the album will be the harmonized demonstration of counting in the middle. GOES.

"You Ain't the First": Acoustic waltz, again not sung by the lead singer. GOES.

"Bad Obsession": Real heavy on the honky-tonk vibe, here, with the slide guitar, harmonica, and piano. But not awful, somehow. Maybe it's the disco bass that shows up in the choruses. STAYS.

"Back Off Bitch": Seriously. What's redeeming about this song? What makes it worth listening to? Nothing I can think of. Wuh-uh-oh-LAME. GOES.

"Double Talkin' Jive": Like "Back Off Bitch" without the level of stupidity in the lyrics. Although they're still pretty stupid. This really sounds like they're not particularly trying to, y'know, write a good song or anything. GOES.


"November Rain": Okay, gets kind of tough here. This song is iconic, a signpost about what GNR were all about at this point. And I think that's exactly why I want to exclude it. It's SO fucking overblown, right from the top, with the retarded "symphony" intro and the thunderstorm effects, and the rolling mallets on the the time the vocals start, it's already annoying. An ace Slash solo can't redeem it. Oh, and not to mention the coda, which could have gone entirely. Here's the exercise: try to separate this song from your memories of it. Don't think of the video, don't think of the first time you heard it...hear it now. Listen to it. It's crap. GOES.

"The Garden": Yet another song dredged up from the pre-Appetite days. Boring, repetitive, and outright wastes Alice Cooper. GOES.

"Garden of Eden": Now, this one, I dig. Racing tempo, cool riff, two and a half minutes of nonstop kickass. Even manages to overcome the weird whooshing sound effects. STAYS.

"Don't Damn Me": Not awful, but again, feels like filler. We know, Axl, everybody's out to keep you quiet. You just keep speaking your mind, and the truth, pal! GOES.

"Bad Apples": Man, this is getting pretty dire. I'm starting to rethink my desire to ditch "Dust and Bones." This one's kinda "bluesy," sorta "funky," has weird talkin' breakdowns, and is pretty much bad. GOES.

"Dead Horse": I love this song without reservation. I'd say it's the best song on I, maybe the best on the whole set. It combines everything I like about Appetite and Lies all in one four-minute package. Classic don't-let-life-get-you-down-even-though-that's-exactly-what-it's-doing subject matter, too. STAYS.

"Coma": The intro brings this one closer than you'd think to being included, but I just can't justify keeping ten minutes of this Bloodrock semi-ripoff (P.S.: looks like I subconsciously stole this comparison from Mark Prindle. Credit to you, you beautiful bastard! I READ YOUR BOOK!). Goddamn, that's a good riff, though...almost. Sunk by bits like "Zap the sonovabitch again." GOES, just barely.

Okay, that's the end of volume one. We are at just over 20 minutes. Looks like we're gonna come in early on this, right? Well, read on...

Days later, I come to whiskey and rock, and here we are, USE YOUR ILLUSION II. We begin:

"Civil War": When people think about the "classic" songs from these albums, "Civil War" is easily among them. It's a bit histrionic and definitely overlong, but shows genuine concern for the general concept of "war," and how it's probably bad or something. Good tune, all the same. STAYS.

"14 Years": I know, I know. I made a whole big deal about having the lead singer sing on the songs, earlier. But Axl sings on the choruses of this one, it's about Izzy and Axl's friendship (soon to collapse,) and there's gotta be at least one example of the three or four songs on UYI that sound like this. STAYS.

"Yesterdays": Sounds like another dashed-off who-gives-a-shit song, complete with heinously out-of-tune vocals. It's like these songs are all "Think About You," except this one actually sounds like a slow version of "My Michelle." GOES.

"Knockin' On Heaven's Door": Oh, good, another lazy cover. With reggae/gospel inflections, no less! And what the hell is up with the fake phone call? Who thought this shit was listenable? GOES.

"Get in the Ring": All right, people, this is where it gets serious. On one hand, this seems like a throwaway track, just another excuse for Axl to yell at people he hates (or who are vaguely not serving his purposes, it's not particularly clear.) But it's a good rocker, and something about it is so goddamn AUDACIOUS that it's hard to ignore. And in all honesty, Axl's pussy whining in the spoken-word bit just makes me giggle. How many times in my life have I randomly spouted "Bob Guccione Jr. at Spin?!?" Many times, many times. STAYS, somehow.

"Shotgun Blues": See, this is exactly why "Get in the Ring" made it. Coming after that, this song just sounds dull and indistinguished. GOES.

"Breakdown": According to the Wikipedia entry (and Slash's book) this song was really difficult to get right. Huh. Too bad it wasn't particularly worth it. Seems like the random breakdown (oh, I get it, ha ha ha ha!) at the end is indicative of the slack attitude of the whole tune here. GOES.

"Pretty Tied Up": An uninspired tune, with another set of particularly misogynistic lyrics. Sheesh. GOES.

"Locomotive": Wait, wait. Eight and a half minutes? Is there something that I don't remember in this song? Something else than generic blues-chug with badly off-time vocals in the choruses?

(six minutes later) A piano-led coda! Oh, sure! That makes SOME FUCKING SENSE AT ALL. GOES.

"So Fine": GNARRRRGH. It sounds like they're ripping off the beginning of their own cover of "Live and Let Die," except it's a whole song, and apparently it's about Johnny Thunders. It sounds like meta-bullshit. GOES.

"Estranged": Yes, they're allowed one epic. ONE. And it's this one. The lyrics are bearable (somewhat,) the exploded song structure makes sense in context, and Slash's guitar work is so good that even Axl had to thank him for it. STAYS.

"You Could Be Mine:" The last of the absolute classics on UYI, in fact, the last worthwhile song on the damn thing. This could have been on Appetite and no one would have blinked an eye (apparently, the song germinates from early sessions for that record.) Check out those nifty harmony vocals in the chorus! And the suitably apocalyptic middle eight! Even if Axl's lifting lyrics from Bernie Taupin (carefully noted in the liners, no less,) it's worth it. STAYS.

"Don't Cry (alternate lyrics)": Same song, different vocals. You can get away with this treacle once, but not twice. GOES.

"My World": Oh, hee hee hee! Hee hee! Oh, hee hee hee! Oh, Axl. If this had been a hidden, "bonus" track, you probably could have gotten away with it as a joke. Instead, it is the official closer to your magnum opus. God only knows what you could have been thinking, but it wasn't anything smart. GOES.

Total time of selections from volume II? 33 minutes. Our total time is 53 minutes, a solid 53 minutes, five songs from each volume. Yes, folks, this could have been the power-packed followup to Appetite. In original order:

-"Right Next Door To Hell"

-"Don't Cry (original version)"

-"Bad Obsession"

-"Garden of Eden"

-"Dead Horse"

-"Civil War"

-"14 Years"

-"Get in the Ring"


-"You Could Be Mine"

Needs some sequencing, but a damn good record, right there. Now! Interestingly, and as I mentioned before, GNR attempted to cover this territory themselves. In 1998, someone (god knows who) threw together a bunch of non-swearin' tunes from the two albums, and called it plain ol' Use Your Illusion. Here is its tracklisting:

"Live and Let Die"

"Don't Cry" (original)

"You Ain't the First"

"November Rain"

"The Garden"

"Dead Horse"

"Civil War"

"14 Years"


"Knockin' on Heaven's Door"


"Don't Cry" (alternate)

Not entirely off from my selection, but manages to include BOTH cover songs and BOTH versions of "Don't Cry." Yipes.

And that is how I have played the game. Agree? Disagree? It hardly matters. The point is, there's a good album in there somewhere. If you don't like my version, surely you can find one yourself. I know it's in there.