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Guns N' Roses

Use Your Illusion II


[Geffen; 1991]



By ; October 31, 2011 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

If volume one was the angrier of the two Use Your Illusion records, then II is its sadder counterpart, filled with more ballads and less vitriol. Sure, UYI I had its share of emotional tracks – “November Rain” the most glaring inclusion – but even those were filled with a bit more cynicism and spite (“Rain” was, after all, essentially about the end of a relationship, and the video showed a pill-swallowing, liquor-swilling man on the verge of suicide). UYI II is a bit more contemplative, nostalgic and accepting. I was denial, anger, bargaining; II is the depression (“Estranged”) and acceptance (“Yesterdays”).

Of course, let’s not look too much into all this: the album, after all, houses two of the band’s worst songs, “Get in the Ring” and “My World,” not to mention an unnecessary remake of “Don’t Cry” which pales in comparison to the original, if only because the melody is the same and, well, it’s not the original.

But it’s still interesting, in retrospect, to view the album as two distinct parts, and to consider whether the thematic differences in tracklisting were purposeful or incidental. It is easier, too, to perceive the record as a reflection of the band’s state of mind rather than one concerning romantic relations; the music video for “Yesterdays” in particular is eerily prescient, featuring black-and-white clips of the band playing in an abandoned warehouse (a possible homage to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”’s iconic vid) interspersed with photographs of the Appetite for Destruction days. The band members look happy in these pictures, and in the present day seem to just be going through the motions; the change in their appearances is also startling (Axl, dressed simply in jeans and t-shirt, with his hair in a ponytail, has never looked more average or everyman; and while Slash is sporting a hat, it’s not his signature one. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin is noticeably absent, as by this point he had altogether removed himself from the group).

It’s one of their best songs and one of the few from the Illusions that isn’t vastly over-produced or overlong; at 3 minutes and 16 seconds, it is indeed one of their shortest tracks, and effective as a sort of meta-comment on their break-up before they broke up. At least one of them possibly foresaw the future and ran with it.

But that’s not to say the overproduction on the album is a flaw. Well, it is — but it’s an endearing one. The Illusions are, after all, most fondly (for some) remembered for their excess and self-indulgence, and elsewhere on II we have the Spinal Tap-ish Socially Conscious Rock Star cliché in full effect (evident on “Civil War,” where W. Axl Rose, a man who legally changed his name so that its anagram would spell “WAR,” implores us to consider “what’s so civil about war anyway?”), a 9-minute track inspired by Vanishing Point, and a song that opens with some kind of Middle Eastern-inspired riff, and whose lyrical hook turns out to be, “She’s pretty tied up / Hangin’ upside down / She’s pretty tied up / And you can ride her.” What?!

Though it may, overall, have a couple weaker tracks than its counterpart, Use Your Illusion II is the more cohesive of the two albums and simply more fun to listen to despite a more somber tone. The band took a lot of heat for covering “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” with critics citing their increasing number of cover songs as a sign of selling out/losing touch/whatever (a version of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” was featured on UYI I), but the truth is that GN’R had been playing the song live for years – it’s even included on the setlist for their legendary Appetite-era Ritz show from ’88 (definitely worth YouTubing if you want to see the group at their peak). Truth be told, the real sign of their losing touch was the production on the track itself – at one point post-guitar-solo, someone felt it was appropriate to include a bizarre answering machine recording, where someone threatens a mysterious fellow named Jack that he won’t have any more of his “rank subjugation” and chastises him for his “tattered libido.” Huh?! (Also: the alternate version of this song, included in the Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder, apparently featured dialogue snippets from the movie itself on top of everything else. You’ve gotta love the ‘90s.)

But, it’s awesome. Broad, bombastic, anthemic. When you think of GN’R at their most popular, this is the exact kind of sprawling song that comes to mind, for better or worse.

“Get in the Ring” and “Shotgun Blues” are back-to-back on the tracklisting, which is nice, because it makes them so much easier to skip. To be fair, the former of the two at least has a nice melody – and pretty solid little riffs and basslines by Slash and Duff McKagan respectively – but it’s ruined by Axl’s ego at its worst, chastising irrelevant music publications and record execs and inviting them to “suck his fucking dick.” “Shotgun Blues,” on the other hand, is mediocre at best on a musical level, and abhorrent in its lyrics; written in response to a feud with Vince Neil, Axl invites the Motley Crue singer to “suck his ass,” which continues his odd fascination with the idea of other men sucking questionable areas of his body.

“Breakdown” is the sort of track that an average fan probably wouldn’t appreciate, but has been singled out as a fan favourite by many over the years – it’s too long, sure, but at this point, criticizing a song on these albums for being “too long” almost seems redundant. The whole Vanishing Point thing was apparently tacked on to the end because Axl had seen the movie on TV one day during the recording sessions and thought it was cool; 20 years later it’s hilariously misguided and amazing at the same time.

Another fan favourite, “Estranged,” is a song that should have been the album’s closer; a nine-minute ballad that might not be stuck in your head as easily as, say, “Don’t Cry” or “November Rain” (the supposed prequels to a trilogy of thematically-linked songs), but is probably one of the most emotionally draining and musically heavy pieces the group has written; it is, once again, very much an Axl Rose song, and he is the sole credit for its lyrics, but Slash has two of his best solos here – so good that Axl went out of his way to thank the lead guitarist for his work on the song in the record’s liner notes. It would be more logical to compare “Estranged” to “Coma,” from UYI I, in terms of how it is structured: it’s the sort of track that won’t be on any Greatest Hits compilations but would probably be on most fans’ Best-Of lists.

Considered wholly two decades later, the Use Your Illusions represent many things, but mostly these: a band given free reign and a music industry at its height. As mentioned in the Use Your Illusion I retrospective: this type of record really wouldn’t be possible today. The double LP is essentially dead as we delve deeper into the digital download era, and the fleeting nature of the modern pop star has rendered such excess and self-indulgence as seen on display here extinct – Donald Trump even lined up outside Tower Records to purchase these discs back in ’91, to give you an idea of how universally-anticipated they were.

Use Your Illusion I and II have been heavily criticized, from the day of their release to the present; however, over time, some of these criticisms have become strengths, and as a whole they represent a compelling encapsulation of a band at their peak, never failing to bore even at their most bloated. Keith Richards, a man all too familiar with the excess of records such as Exile On Main Street, once said that Guns N’ Roses could have been the next Rolling Stones. He wasn’t too far off.

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Read John Ulmer’s Second Look at Use Your Illusion I here.



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