Any band that makes it big will tell you that the second album is the hardest; while you had a lifetime to craft the debut, you’re now up against the clock for the follow-up. When the debut in question happens to be one of the finest hard rock albums of all-time and spawned no fewer than three of the most enduring tracks of its era, the pressure becomes considerably higher.
The debut was Appetite for Destruction, the year was 1991 and the band was Guns ‘N Roses. Having planted themselves atop the rock mountain four years earlier, it was time for the encore. Fans’ patience was rewarded with not one but two full-length albums worth of new material – Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. Sales records were crushed, a legend was further cemented and world domination continued.
But what about the music?
The albums were not only split by time constraints of the compact disc format, but even within each disc there’s an obvious divide in the two (sometimes three) directions the band was heading. Axl Rose was writing ten-minute schizophrenic piano ballads (“Estranged,” “November Rain”). Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was bringing time-honored rock grooves to the table (“Double-Talkin’ Jive,” “14 Years”). Guitar god Slash was falling somewhere in between (“Coma,” “The Garden”). What we the fans were being handed was pretty much everything – good or bad, this was Guns ‘N Fuckin' Roses. Love it or leave it, right?
Not necessarily. If you dig past the tracks that are filler and the tracks that are simply lunatic ravings (or in the case of Use Your Illusion II’s closer “My World,” both) there’s a lot of great music to be found – no great surprise considering the minds behind it all. The filler and the ravings, however, were often so meandering or labored that they bordered on the unlistenable. A great record was hiding somewhere in there, and in the spirit of this modern age of playlists and mix discs, we’ll trim away the fat and introduce a new masterwork to the world: behold, Use Your Illusion.
- Civil War
- You Could Be Mine
- Double Talkin’ Jive
- Don’t Cry (Original)
- Perfect Crime
- Right Next Door to Hell
- The Garden
- 14 Years
- Garden of Eden
- You Ain’t the First
- Dust ‘N Bones
- November Rain
Instead of taking the previous Illusion albums’ approach of letting the listener digest everything at once in a seemingly random order, this new track listing and sequencing puts a more flowing structure to the listening experience. Simply put, we’re following the tried-and-true arc of countless classic albums. Come out swinging and keep on rocking; slow it down a few tracks in; build up to a huge centerpiece; delve into the experimental; and finally, (some would say most importantly) close out with an epic to end all epics.
In this light, the album picks up a kind of cohesiveness that the original pair was so sorely lacking. Rather than having contrasting song styles butt heads with each other, the songs now actually support each other and highlight each other’s strengths. Note how the classical acoustic guitar solo that ends “Double Talkin’ Jive” leads so nicely into I’s version of “Don’t Cry,” or how the opening piano chords of “Estranged” pick up exactly where “Yesterdays” ends its coda. Even better, the suite of Izzy-‘n-Slash songs towards the end provide a nice counterpoint to the Axl Rose indulgence that bookends them. Where “November Rain” was originally plugged in as a marathon between two shorter sprints, here the song has no subsequent tracks to answer to and is allowed to shine on its own, leaving the listener to hang on that final synthesized orchestra note and realize that there is nowhere for the band to go from there. The band has by this point shown all its cards; the album naturally follows suit.
By looking past everything the group did wrong here (and would do wrong later down the line as well), we’re allowed to see how great they truly were and wonder what could’ve been had they not self-destructed in the years following the Illusion releases. We see Stradlin toeing the line for classic rock purists everywhere and proving once again that there is a place for blues-based boogie shuffle in the heavy metal world. We see that Rose’s epics could be contained and his venom could be kept in check. And we see that Slash had more to offer than mere guitar heroics, even if the pyrotechnics are still in high supply here. From the belligerent swagger of “Dust ‘N Bones” to the screaming solos of “Estranged,” from the power balladry of “Don’t Cry” to the heavy metal slither of “You Could Be Mine,” it’s obvious that something great was right there all along.
And they wonder why the follow-up has taken so long?