I spent the week paring down the monstrous Use Your Illusion albums from Guns N Roses into one lean, mean fighting disc. Here is Part One and Part Two of that effort, and here you can find the results of my labor.
With that out of the way but the topic still fresh in my mind, I wanted to take a moment and review my favorite songs from the records. There isn’t any more lead-in than that needed so let’s get right into it.
#5 – 14 Years
This is the song Izzy Stradlin sang the verses on, though an unfamiliar listener could be forgiven for not knowing that since Axl’s voice can take on so many different forms. There is no official confirmation but rumors suggest that the song is about Izzy and Axl’s friendship. Izzy left the band during the tour cycle for Illusion and the band did not play the song again until Izzy did a guest spot on the reunion tour.
For me it’s just a cool song that I always liked. It has no real personal meaning for me – I mean, I was 14 when the records came out so I had no “14 years or silence or pain” to relate to, just dumb kid stuff. It’s a song that I’ve always playlisted or whatever and when I revisited these albums it was one of the first ones that really jumped out at me.
#4 – November Rain
Yep, the epic, grandiose, and also ridiculous and over-wrought hit is one of my favorites from the albums. This song and video was such a complete spectacle that it was hard to turn away from. Cake fights, explosions, and cars driving off cliffs while Slash solos – what more could you ask for?
I guess this song is about Axl and his personal relations with women. I don’t really know, it’s a bit hard to derive meaning from all the bombast. I do know that when it rains in the winter I always get this song stuck in my head. I think that’s an inevitable part of life for anyone around when this was all the rage.
#3 – You Could Be Mine
The lead single from the records had a glorious tie-in with the hotly-anticipated Terminator 2. The resulting video interspersed movie footage and also some original content, climaxing when the Terminator’s target screen gives a funny message after scanning the band.
The song is a badass rocker that outlines what must have been a crazy relationship. Nothing wrong with redlining things once in awhile, that’s what youth is for. But yeah, it’s a great song and a signature tune for me from these albums.
#2 – Estranged
This long epic was always one of the highlights of the double set. It (I think) served as the final single release for these records before the band moved to an uninspired covers album before effectively breaking up for 20 years.
The song is magnificent – with slowly-building movements that incorporate some of Slash’s most tasteful guitar work and very poignant lyrics from Axl. The song builds to a monumental finish around the 7-minute mark – this is the part where Axl jumps off the ship and does his swimming with the dolphins thing in the video.
I loved the song when it first hit, but Estranged has also taken on new meaning as I’ve gotten older. When the albums released I was 14, when the video for this song dropped I think I was 15 or 16. The word “estranged” is something I would have had to look up in a dictionary. I didn’t know the first thing about it.
But all these years later it’s a different story. Sure, estrangement usually refers to either spouses or parent-child relationships. But it can still apply in a broader sense to personal interactions as a whole. As time wears on, we will lose family, friends, lovers, and other people. One day, often without knowing it, we’ll have said the last things we’re ever gonna say to each other. It’s not a matter of death – everyone’s still around living their lives, it’s just that people have fallen away. Maybe some reconnections can and should be made, but by and large there is very much a “ships passing in the night” vibe to how people come together and fall apart.
In this age of pandemics, climate upheaval and social-political unrest, it’s tough also not to consider the personal relationship aspect of life. We’re all twisting and turning toward something that doesn’t really look good, but also the past is dead and gone. Might as well have a bit of midlife crisis on top of the endless supply of existential dread.
Why must it drift away and die? I don’t know, but that’s the way it goes.
#1 – Civil War
It’s time for the champion to come claim its crown, and this battle was never in any real dispute.
Civil War has always been my favorite track from this era. The song is both melodically beautiful and powerful, a masterful attack on the military industrial complex and a look at the formation of unrest and discord through society.
I didn’t quite understand all of that back then but the song always leapt out at me. And now that I do, perhaps barely, understand what it’s about, I’ve noticed I’m far from the only one to gravitate towards it when these albums get brought up. Hell, they play this song on the radio a fair bit these days, even if “radio play” doesn’t mean what it used to.
Rock music doesn’t always have to be high-minded. It can be dumb and fun, both of which are in ample supply on the Use Your Illusion records. But rock is often at its best when it does cover the deeper, darker threads of existence. And Guns N Roses are in top form on this song.
Well folks, that just about does it for my exploration of the Use Your Illusion albums. It was a very interesting time for me to come of age in, both with this ultimate realization of the band’s grandiose plans and the antithesis to that bombast that hit the airwaves at the exact same time. It was pretty fun and sometimes head-scratching to go back through these ambitious albums and the wide variety of songs on offer. I didn’t feel many were that great but there are some absolute masterworks to be found here.
In terms of further explorations of double albums, well, I know there is other work to be done. My next cutting room floor project is sitting on my CD shelf right now (sorry, Trent). I also have a future idea that pushes the bounds of the definitions here but I’ll see how that goes a bit down the road.
To close – thank you, rock stars, for thinking we need these massive double records. If nothing else, it gives me something to write about.
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