For months now, Guns N' Roses has seemed like nothing less than a rock-and-roll freak show, a traveling carnival of gossip and hype, rumor and recrimination.
Their faces have been everywhere, from MTV and Rolling Stone to Newsweek and CNN, and their exploits -- the riot in St. Louis, the tantrum in New York, the ongoing feuds with everyone from the singer in Motley Crue to the publisher of Spin -- have become the stuff of "Tonight Show" monologues. So completely has this band become consumed by its bad-boy role that many have forgotten what made it matter in the first place.
Well, we just got a couple of reminders. With the release tomorrow of "Use Your Illusion I" (Geffen 24415) and "Use Your Illusion II" (Geffen 24420), Guns N' Roses reaffirms its claim to rock-and-roll immortality, proving once and for all that there's more to this band than bad attitude and a well-managed image.
There's also great rock-and-roll.
Whether non-fans will be able to hear that greatness over the din of pre-release hype is hard to say. Even before their release, the two "Illusion" albums garnered more press than most releases get after topping the charts, and the expectations for these albums is almost unprecedented.
Incredibly, though, they deliver everything the band has promised and then some. Moreover, the twin-album packaging -- two simultaneous, each offered at full-price and featuring 76-minutes of music -- seems entirely justified; this isn't a double album, with each half sold separately for maximum profit, but two distinct recordings, each with its own inner logic and sensibility.
"Use Your Illusion I" is the friendlier of the two, boasting a sunnier perspective and stronger pop potential than its companion. Granted, "pop" in this case is a relative term -- we're talking about Guns N' Roses, not Phil Collins -- and that upbeat disposition doesn't preclude titles like "Don't Damn Me," "Right Next Door to Hell" or "Back Off Bitch."
But within the limits of the band's optimism -- a soured world-view in which "f--- you" is a standard greeting and "bitch" is used far more easily than "baby'" -- "Illusion I" is a remarkable step forward. It's not that the band's outlook has changed, although it would be hard to imagine an earlier GNR covering "Live and Let Die"; the music has changed as well.
And it's the album's sound, not its lack of fury, that gives "Illusion I" its power. Not only does "Perfect Crime" surge with an aggressive energy that tops anything on the band's debut, or can "Dust N' Bones" assume a Stones-style blues groove with complete confidence, but "You Ain't the First" invokes country blues in ambling waltz-time while "November Rain" verges on the symphonic in its melancholy melodicism.
Here, it seems, the only thing holding this band back is its imagination -- and that appears limitless.
But even that anything-goes aesthetic is scant preparation for the epic scope of "Coma," a 10-minute meditation on life and death that's as dramatic as a Pink Floyd set-piece, and as visceral as a punch in the gut. Though the idea is terrifyingly
simple -- take the listener inside an overdose -- the song itself is anything but cut-and-dried; it understands the pain that pushes people to drugs even as it rejects that particular means of escape. It may not be Nancy Reagan's idea of just saying no, but it's easily the most eloquent anti-drug song since Lou Reed's "Heroin."
If that's the group's bright side, though, some of you may well wonder what the darker "Use Your Illusion II" could possibly have in store. Anger, for starters; from the double-barreled rage of "Shotgun Blues" to the name-naming rant of "Get In the Ring," it's clear these guys are really cheesed.
It isn't just fury that distinguishes "Illusion II" from its twin; it's also the album's sense of resignation. A case in point would be "Don't Cry," the band's current single and the only song to appear (though with different lyrics) on both albums. On the first album, it's conventional and romantic, a broken-heart ballad promising that things will be better in the morning.
On "Illusion II," though, it's something altogether different. Instead of offering comfort, this version merely shrugs, telling the tearful ex-lover that there's no point in mourning love gone bad. And that attitude -- what's-the-use, the-world's-a-mess -- seems to define this album.
Or, rather, it would, were it not for the fact that Guns N' Roses doesn't give up so easily. And it's that refusal to capitulate, to give fate the satisfaction of seeing its spirit crumple, that is the album's real triumph. You can hear it everywhere, from the quiet majesty of "Civil War" to the way parts of "Breakdown" seem to echo (melodically, at least) the refrain from "Me and Bobby McGee."