The Confessor: Guns N’ Roses In The Use Your Illusion Era

gnr

By Spencer. As I wrote in the very first post on this site, S&N promises to take seriously both the artistic and the lowbrow. Hopefully you’ve seen that in some of the songs we’ve included in our Mixologist series, as well as in some of the topics we’ve taken on so far. But with our new series, The Confessor, I want to give our contributors the chance to come clean about some of their favorite guilty pleasures in movies and music. Because let’s face it, the line between bad and good has a funny way of moving around when it’s something you love. 

For me, I can think of no better guilty pleasure than my favorite band from eighth grade, Guns N’ Roses. So allow me to admit it right here: I still love GNR. I still listen to them whenever I go home to San Antonio (a city where metal never died). And I’m not just talking about the Appetite For Destruction-era GNR that enjoys the lingering approval of publications like Rolling Stone because of the album’s grittier take on hair metal.

I’m talking about the Use Your Illusion-era GNR, too. The GNR with the balls to release two albums of material when they only really had one. The GNR that made gigantic, budget-busting videos full of nonsense like dolphins and dying Victoria’s Secret models and Slash playing guitar solos in front of a chapel in the middle of nowhere. The GNR that knew how to make the best of a well-placed flute solo. The GNR that, with dead seriousness, asked the question, “what’s so civil about war anyway?”

The real question is, do I love GNR in spite of their ridiculousness, or because of it?

slash_appt1That’s hard to answer. Let’s start with the most easily defensible parts of the Guns N’ Roses legacy. There’s no denying that Slash is one of the great lead guitar players of the 80s and pre-grunge 90s. He’s everything you want: a black leather-wearing, cigarette-smoking, top hat-wearing, crazy hair-sporting virtuoso who does his talking with his sunburst Les Paul rather than his mouth. There’s a mystery to him that seems so at odds with the brash way in which he plays — screaming, rapid-fire notes in high registers, cranking out solos with an unexpressive face that gives zero fucks. His style is dated, sure, but if that bothers you, you’re undoubtedly missing the entire point of this column.

Then there’s Axl Rose. The man is a pompous, self-obsessed brat — a metal Justin Bieber, if you will — but can you imagine any other voice screeching out these songs? His shrillness offers exactly what a band like GNR needs: sonic excess. (And for those who think he’s just a noisemaker, he gets way too little credit for the warmth that he brings to his ballads).

axl3But Axl giveth and he taketh away. Because by all accounts his ego was the source of the band’s forays into the ridiculous that started with the divisive Use Your Illusion albums. The other band members, especially Slash and bassist Duff McKagan, reportedly chafed at his obsession with longer orchestral ballads like “November Rain” and “Estranged”, preferring more straightforward rock. Metal purists will still point to those songs as the turning point for GNR, never forgiving them for “selling out” at best and losing their balls at worst.

I wholeheartedly disagree. “November Rain”, aside from being the greatest music video not named “Thriller”, is a near-perfect song — precisely because of its ridiculousness. There’s the aforementioned flute solo. The perfect use of a string section. The peaceful co-existence of classic rock, metal, and opera in its arrangement. It’s a song that builds slowly and tells a story, not just in its lyrics but in its sounds, and when the bottom drops out at the end and Slash’s guitar cranks out the final funeral dirge, you have no idea what it all means except that someone died in the most rocking way imaginable. Hell, the song even closes with the sound of rain! Some might say that’s a little too on the nose, but there’s no place for subtlety in hair metal.

The video and the song are inextricably linked by greatness. Like any historic piece of abstract art — why are you laughing? — “November Rain” gives you no easy answers. Did Slash kill Stephanie Seymour? I dunno. Why is her face half-shrouded in black like that? Shrug. Did that guy jump through the wedding cake just to escape a little rain? Seems excessive. Is it bad for a grand piano when you stand on it?

“Estranged” might be even better. The video is a convoluted mess, with dolphins swimming down Sunset Boulevard, Axl jumping off an oil tanker, and Slash performing a solo while literally standing on water. The song is just as convoluted, but with so many great melodic turns that it’s hard to care.

I mean, come on. Did you see that? It’s like the music video equivalent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator shouting to the crowd, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

That’s the thing with GNR. Like a summer action blockbuster, loving them requires you to accept the premise, and the premise is this: rock music doesn’t always have to be so serious. Now some would question whether GNR, toward the end of their run, were kidding about all this or not. And like any other band of their day, GNR indulged in occasional “message” song (“Civil War”, “Don’t Cry”, “Coma”). But I defy you to watch those videos and tell me there’s not a certain tongue-in-cheek element at play there. Like a crude predecessor of Lana Del Rey, GNR seem to be mocking themselves and the whole idea of what it means to be massive rock stars at the turn of the 90s. As satire, “November Rain” and “Estranged” — not to mention their covers of “Live And Let Die” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” — are worthy descendents of Spinal Tap.

So that’s my confession: I love Guns N’ Roses. Don’t try and change me.

4 thoughts on “The Confessor: Guns N’ Roses In The Use Your Illusion Era

  1. Wait, metal died?! If loving big, obnoxious rock is fit for the confessional, then I guess I’ve got some writing to do.

    Separately, I think you got to the evolutionary core of a hair metal fan here. You end up turning to hair metal because of the good stuff–like Slash’s lead skills and Axl’s voice–and you slowly convert to a lifer because of these bands’ musical and lyrical ridiculousness. And sometimes you just need to know what they will do next, never really losing the high of the first listen.

    But what I really want to know is: what’s the better album, Use Your Illusion I or II?

    • Some of the appeal is obviously our youth too. Quite honestly, if I heard these songs for the first time now, I doubt I’d love them so much.

      Now, to your question: damn that’s tough. I’ve got to give the narrow edge to Use Your Illusion II. Both of them have a lot of filler, so I’m judging based on the strength of the good songs, and ignoring everything else.

      Use Your Illusion I has “Live And Let Die” (B), “Don’t Cry” (A), “November Rain” (A+), “The Garden” (B), “Garden Of Eden” (B), and “Coma” (A-).

      Use Your Illusion II has “Civil War” (A), “Yesterdays” (B), “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (A-), “Get In The Ring” (B+), “Pretty Tied Up” (B-), “So Fine” (B+), “Estranged” (A+), “You Could Be Mine” (A), and “Don’t Cry (Alt. Version)” (A-). So by my rough estimation, UYI2 has more good songs and a higher overall quality among those songs.

      What about you? What’s your favorite?

      • I completely agree that UYI2 is the superior album, but it is really close. Like you, using the sheer number of quality songs seals the deal for me. What brings UYI1 close for me is that November Rain, Coma, and Don’t Cry are so good that their quality alone nearly overtakes the few extra B tracks on UYI2. I’d give both November Rain and Don’t Cry an A+, with an A for Coma. In the end, however, with so many tracks like Estranged, Civil War, You Could be Mine, and the alternative Don’t Cry that are easily A material (and I might even include Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door in the straight A category), the edge goes to UYI2. Plus, even if the two albums were tied, I would give it to UYI2 solely based on the lyrics to Get in the Ring.

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