When you think of bloated double albums, I’ll bet money that the Use Your Illusions by Guns N’ Roses are the first ones that come to mind. It was understandable for the long-awaited follow-up to the iconic Appetite for Destruction to consist of two fully loaded CDs, especially since the only thing out in the four years between was the half-fake live/half-acoustic GNR Lies EP. It was less understandable when said CDs were filled to the brim with what seemed to be every single piece of music that Axl and friends had ever written. They’re a strange two-part odyssey where hard rockers intermingle with power ballads and attempts at legitimate artistry surround a song where the band calls their critics out by name and threaten to beat the crap out of them…
Thus, it’s only inevitable to try Using the Illusions (heh) to make them fit on a single disc. Sure enough, an officially sanctioned Use Your Illusion compilation does exist and came out in 1998; but that release was a move to appease retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart who didn’t want any of that naughty potty mouth rock & roll to grace their retail shelves. I’m more motivated to remove the filler and make a concise release bad language or none, but I’ll more than happily swipe that compilation’s twelve-track format as I switch these songs around.
Also, just so you know, apparently some people think Use Your Illusion II is the better half. I am not one of those people. Mainly because “Get in the Ring” and “My World” exist.
1. “Civil War”
The Illusions originally kicked off with “Right Next Door to Hell,” an energetic three minute rocker that’s good but doesn’t quite represent what they were trying to go for overall. With its opening sound bite and climactic structure, “Civil War” is a power ballad that goes beyond mere love song musing and manages to be encompassing without being too self-contained. It’s also a nice chance to properly bid adieu to drummer Steven Adler, as this is the only song on either album to feature his “talents” before the band decided that his severe drug habits made him more trouble than he was worth.
2. “Dust N’ Bones”
The epic power ballads may be these albums’ most remembered tracks, but the band’s penchant for sleazy Rolling Stones-style blues rock is subtler yet ultimately just as present. This is made immediately clear with “Dust N’ Bones,” a dirty mid-tempo tune featuring a slinky bassline and lead vocals by guitarist Izzy Stradlin. While Izzy’s voice isn’t as technically accomplished at that of LA’s leading howler monkey Axl Rose, itgoes down smooth and is just the first of many instances where Izzy proves to be the real talent behind Guns N’ Roses. Sorry, Slash.
3. “Don’t Cry”
I almost put “So Fine” in this spot, but I thought it’d be best not to deny the band one of their bigger singles from this era. “Don’t Cry” is pretty subdued by power ballad standards with some sentimental guitar/piano and a surprisingly delicate vocal performance. You can also put the version with alternate lyrics here if you want; I really don’t understand what the point was in releasing two versions personally.
4. “Bad Obsession”
After the first three songs’ brooding, “Bad Obsession” opts for a more upbeat direction. A combination of harmonica, boogie piano, and a lower pitched drawl from Axl make this song’s hooks even more enjoyable than they would’ve been. There may not be much to say about it but it might get stuck in my head more than any other song on here.
5. “The Garden”
It takes far too long to get to “The Garden” on Use Your Illusion I, which is unfortunate as it would’ve made a neat curveball midway through. While it isn’t exactly a heavy track, the verse-chorus contrasts and ominous atmosphere do make it one of the most esoteric Guns N’ Roses numbers. The snarls courtesy of Alice Cooper during the choruses also make it a mandatory inclusion; his performance is the right amount of spooky and tongue in cheek worthy of shock rock’s patron saint.
6. “Right Next Door to Hell”
“Garden of Eden” comes off “The Garden” well with its fast tempo and motor-mouth vocal delivery, but “Right Next Door to Hell” also works as a fast way to close out the A Side. It may be a bit odd to place an album opener in the middle, but I find the briefly building introduction and catchy hook are just as effective here.
7.”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
It only seems fair to put at least one of the cover songs that GNR recorded on this track listing, and their take on the old Bob Dylan classic won out over “Live and Let Die.” They do the Wings track justice but its original placement seemed like a source of unneeded whiplash. In contrast, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is a steady slow burn and I like the idea of opening the B side with another ballad. And what kind of monster would I be if I deprived your uncle’s fraternity brother of his favorite drunken karaoke jam?
8. “14 Years”
Now to another Izzy-sung blues tune following up the opening ballad. Compared to “Dust N’ Bones,” “14 Years” sounds more direct thanks to its hookier vocal lines, slightly more upbeat shuffle, and blunter lyrics. Songs like this are why I can’t really call the current Guns N’ Roses lineup a “legitimate” reunion; it just ain’t the same without Izzy Stradlin up there full-time. I strongly recommend his 1992 album with the Ju Ju Hounds if you want to hear more eclectic rock & roll in this vein.
9. “Bad Apples”
Like “Bad Obsession,” “Bad Apples” is another upbeat Stones-style boogie number. Dizzy Reed’s piano playing as is fun as ever and while the vocals are higher pitched than they were on “Bad Obsession,” the catchy lines combined with the smooth transitions between the verses and choruses keeps things enjoyable.
10. “Pretty Tied Up”
Putting another upbeat song here may suggest some interchangeable songwriting at work in the Guns camp. That may be the case with the albums as originally released, but “Pretty Tied Up” does manage to stand out on its own terms thanks to another catchy chorus and a nifty Eastern flavor sprinkled throughout. I also like the idea of an album that starts out ballad-heavy and gets progressively more upbeat as it goes on, as the reversal seems to be more common from my experience.
11. “You Could Be Mine”
Speaking of upbeat, “You Could Be Mine” is a driving anthem. It doesn’t quite hit the speed of “Perfect Crime” nor does it have the jovial feel of the other upbeat rockers, but it does ride a solid guitar chug and more drawn out vocal lines. Though with that said, I don’t think this Terminator 2 vehicle really should’ve been the song to close things out…
12. “November Rain”
Now this is the song that would close out the Use Your Illusion single album as well as the only epic song that honestly needs to be included. “Coma” has interesting parts but ultimately bites off more than it can chew, and “Estranged” simply goes nowhere. While “November Rain” is an admittedly overplayed song that nobody over the age of thirty ever needs to hear again, it does have heart behind it and its nine minute runtime does ultimately build up to a nifty Queen-style climax. And that climax is especially effective when there’s nothing that tries to follow it up or steal its thunder.
I must admit that getting this track listing together was more challenging than I had first anticipated. Despite the fillers running rampant on both Use Your Illusions, there are several good songs that I didn’t include on my list. With the mood whiplash that also persists throughout, it’s also even more of a challenge to get these songs in something resembling a coherent order. This is a double album where I’ll be especially curious to see what people think and how their lists will compare. Just don’t ask me about ways to fix Chinese Democracy; that album had enough cooks ruining it for me to start sticking my nose in it…