Random Thoughts on USE YOUR ILLUSION I

06Jan15

For whatever reason — morbid curiosity, reading the list of albums covered in the 33 1/3 series, an accident — I’ve been listening to Guns N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion I” for the first time in years. I think I’d heard bits of it over the years, but only bought it on CD for the first time two years ago (used, of course). My thoughts are as organized as the album:

1.) How To Enjoy It: don’t pay attention to it. If you’re putting it on for a dedicated listen (which still happens, I bet), then you’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to hear every over-thought, over-produced moment, every “sinister” backing vocal track, every calculation that makes the record feel largely unnatural and mostly dead. However, if you put in one ear bud, do other things (house work, homework, work work), then it sounds like fun.

2.) Too Many Words. It’s like GNR believed that more = lots more, and so lots more = lots lots lots more. Then they made it a double on top of that. Everything is huge, especially the word count, and that may be the most important reason why the album remains largely impenetrable. Even the better songs like “Coma” or “Dead Horse” contain somewhere around 24,000 words. Seriously, it rivals a rap album. Why didn’t Rose just write a book? Every chance for a diatribe is taken. Every song is a manifesto, and it keeps the listener at a distance. I can sing every word of “Rocket Queen,” and I know “Coma” really well, but I bet I know 15% of those lyrics.

3.) The Best Songs. There’s more than you might think. I like “Right Next Door to Hell,” “Dust N’ Bones,” “Live and Let Die” (which I would argue is even better than the original*), “Don’t Cry,” “You Ain’t the First,” “Dead Horse,” “Coma” and 45% of “The Garden.”  That’s 9 songs. There are still SIX more! On most days I like “November Rain,” so that leaves “only” five others. That’s so many damn songs.

4.) Timing. As over-thought as this album appears to have been, it would be interesting to see what would have happened had it been recorded AFTER the release of “Nevermind,” since that album seemed to stand against everything that GNR stood for. Axl Rose seems like an oddly receptive and intuitive person. He seems like the kind of guy who understands what’s going on around him, even when he’s making poor decisions.

5.) A Singular Mess. Since I didn’t really live the event when it happened, I’m coming late to the game and I can’t detach the album’s legacy from its content. I came to this album with the tag of “it’s a letdown” hanging from it. So in a way, it can only go up in my estimation. But here’s the interesting thing: as not great as “Use Your Illusion” is (and it certainly is), it is a strangely fascinating kind of not great. And as I’ve been listening to those weird Alice Cooper moments and the repeated guitar solo on “November Rain,” I’ve been asking myself why this is so interesting, at least to me.

I think it’s because these were clearly the bad decisions made by one person who forced his bad decisions onto his band, his producers, PR people, MTV, fans, everyone. They spent MILLIONS of dollars and this is what came out.

Some people might just argue that it’s laziness, but I think this is truly the album that Rose — above all — wanted to make. He wanted to be ambitious and damn the expectations, make double double-albums. Few people have the right mix of insanity, talent, charisma, balls and ego to not only conceive of this idea, but see it through.

“What’s the got to do with ‘Star Wars?'”

I’m glad you randomly asked: listening to “Use Your Illusion I” has me worried for the news “Star Wars.”

We can bank on JJ Abrams doing at least a serviceable job. In nearly every way, these new movies stand to be better than the prequels.

But they won’t be George Lucas movies. And because they won’t be Lucas movies, they won’t have that same quality of balls/ego/madness that gave the originals their charms and the prequels their warts. I believe that in order to come up with lightsabers and Millennium Falcons, you must take the Gunguns and midichloreans. Few people would have ever dreamed to start the prequels with Anakin as a boy, to give a digital character a Rastafarian accent, or to dream that Luke and Leia were siblings. It’s those things that, for better or worse, make Lucas (and Rose) an artist. Nobody else could have made their art. That’s why they’re art.

And I’m worried that “The Force Unleashed” — as it has been designed to be so good and “better” — will end up feeling neutered product. Of all the things Lucas and Rose wanted to do with their boondoggle projects, I doubt they ever worried about their art being considered “good.” And I’m less interested in someone else doing a good version of “Star Wars” (or of GNR for that matter). I wanted Lucas to make good “Star Wars,” just as I would’ve wanted Axl to make a great GNR record. Because he had it in him, and it was his.

*The reason: image. I buy guys like GNR singing these lyrics more than I do Paul McCartney. Not just Paul McCartney… Paul McCartney & Wings! Sure it’s all bullshit, but it Axl’s bullshit is more closely related to killing than Mr. Vegetarian/My Wife Is In This Band.

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