In a small, nerdy corner of pop music criticism/superfanhood, there’s a concept called the “New Jersey,” named after the 1988 Bon Jovi album. Basically, a “New Jersey” is an album that’s “still super popular and even more popular than the albums that preceded it but there’s some sense that the gig is up.” Pop acts are sometimes described as having an “imperial phase,” which Tom Ewing explained on Pitchfork as containing three elements — command (“working hard and well and having the things you try resonate with your desired public”), permission (the audience is with you, and following you on your journey), and self-definition (for good or ill, this batch of work is what you’ll be defined by, and judged against, for the rest of your career). The “New Jersey,” then, can be seen as the milemarker that ends a performer or a group’s imperial phase. Anticipation is high, the work is initially well received, but then comes the dropoff.
Guns N’ Roses delivered two of the most New Jersey-ish albums in rock history in September 1991, when Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II were delivered to record stores simultaneously. Each was a double LP or single CD/cassette, running 75 minutes and containing 16 and 14 tracks, respectively. And they were hugely popular — UYI1 sold 685,000 copies in its first week, while UYI2 sold 770,000. Both albums are multiplatinum at this point. But by the end of the UYI tour in 1993, the band was already disintegrating. They put out a half-assed, barely listenable album of covers, The Spaghetti Incident?, in November 1993, which sold about a quarter of what the UYI albums had sold, and by 1997 the band was effectively over, all of its original members having gone their separate ways, leaving singer Axl Rose the legal owner of the name.
Why are we talking about this? Because last week, the Guns N’ Roses organization, which has reabsorbed some key former employees in recent years (guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan came back in 2016), released remastered editions of the Use Your Illusion albums. They are available as an eight-disc boxed set with both albums, two full live concerts (a 1991 show from New York’s Ritz and a 1992 show from Las Vegas), and a Blu-Ray containing video of the New York show. (If you’re a vinyl person, there’s a 12-LP version.) But they’re also available individually as 2CD sets, and in a truly perverse/annoying gesture, the bonus discs contain additional live recordings that aren’t in the big box.
(It also strikes me as hilariously in character, of course, that these reissues came out a year and two months after the original albums’ 30th anniversary, last September, because at the height of their fame, Guns N’ Roses were infamous for taking the stage hours late. Moving on.)
I loved Guns N’ Roses debut album, Appetite for Destruction. I bought it on cassette when I was a freshman or maybe a sophomore in high school, and listened to it endlessly for months. But in the years that followed, my attention shifted to Danzig, Metallica, Living Colour, Public Enemy, Ministry…
I didn’t buy the Use Your Illusions when they came out. I was still listening to Metallica’s self-titled album, which had been released a month before. (Other records that summer/early fall that captured my attention: Cypress Hill’s debut, Kraftwerk’s The Mix, Living Colour’s Biscuits EP, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Prong’s Prove You Wrong, and Slick Rick’s The Ruler’s Back.) I don’t think I ever listened to them from front to back in the intervening three decades, either. But now that they’re being shoved in the public’s face again, I’ve done the thing… and honestly, the results were not impressive. If you want to bail out now, I’ll understand.
Use Your Illusion I had two big singles, “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain.” Both were power ballads, the latter more epic than the former. (And the reissue contains a new version of “November Rain” with a 50-piece orchestra added; it sounds fantastic. If nothing else, that’s absolutely worth hearing.) But a lot of the songs are grimy rockers, from the opening “Right Next Door to Hell” and “Dust N’ Bones” to the punky “Perfect Crime” and the coke-jabbering “Garden of Eden.” Too many of them add elements of country and Southern rock, though; “The Garden” is a barely reworked Allman Brothers melody with Rose sneering about nothing, but Alice Cooper saves it by showing up to provide a surprisingly creepy co-lead voice. Speaking of the lyrics, a lot of them are self-pitying, solipsistic meanderings, including a distressing amount of Rose complaining about his life as one of the era’s richest, most well-known rock frontmen. He makes fun of himself occasionally for being such a dumb shit, like at the end of “Back Off Bitch” when he laughs and says, “Hey, whaddya think he’s trying to say there, anyway?” It doesn’t mitigate the fact that the song repeats the phrase “Back off, bitch” about sixty-five times in five minutes, but it shows at least rudimentary self-awareness. Too many of the other songs (“You Ain’t the First,” “Bad Obsession,” “Bad Apples,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Dead Horse”) are as forgettable as their titles, and the album ends with a 10-minute track called “Coma” that’s…fine, I guess, but it’s 10 minutes long, longer than “November Rain,” and there’s just no justification for that.
Use Your Illusion II has two fewer songs than I but is only 15 seconds shorter. That’s because several of the songs are at least three and sometimes five minutes longer than they should be. The opener, “Civil War,” runs 7:40, while “Locomotive” is 8:41 and “Estranged,” the album’s equivalent to “November Rain,” takes a life-sapping 9:22 to finally end. Sorry, but a song called “Locomotive” should be fast and short. (Motörhead’s “Locomotive,” the last track on No Remorse, is one of their fastest songs — and that’s saying something — and it blasts by in 3:22. You could listen to Motörhead’s “Locomotive” 2 1/2 times, or Guns N’ Roses’ “Locomotive” once. The choice should be obvious.) “Breakdown” could have been a decent four-minute song but lasts seven, at least in part because Axl Rose decided to recite dialogue from the mostly forgotten movie Vanishing Point over its extended coda. Fully half the songs here have extraneous sonic or compositional elements, or both: electric sitar on “Pretty Tied Up,” sampled dialogue from Cool Hand Luke on “Civil War,” everything about their bar-band (at best) cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”…oh, and the entirety of “Get in the Ring,” where Rose spends the second half of the song calling out editors of (now-defunct) music magazines by name for writing articles about the band that he didn’t like, and challenging them to fights.
“Estranged” was played live when Guns N’ Roses toured in support of the Use Your Illusion albums, but wasn’t actually released as a single until the end of 1994, when they were already starting to fall apart. It has almost no structure, just a string of verses and solos; it feels like the middle of a more structured piece, stretched out to interminable length. In that way, it’s kind of a synecdoche for the entire massive UYI project. There’s not one genuinely great song on either album, and even the pretty-good ones are sunk by the overcooked performances. The newer bandmembers, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and drummer Matt Sorum, are mostly to blame for that; the keyboards are either frilly or superfluous or both, and Sorum drags the music down like an anchor. He has no sense of swing, and there’s no air in his playing — he’s a relentlessly thudding timekeeper, and nothing he plays ever raises the music’s energy level, a cardinal sin in rock drumming. He makes the songs sound slower than they are. (Hearing him pound away at “Welcome to the Jungle” like he’s driving nails into the stage during the New York concert included in the giant boxed set is enough to make one weep.)
The Use Your Illusion albums are maybe the biggest, most depressing example of disappearing up one’s own ass in the history of rock. Even the throwaway songs on Appetite for Destruction — “Think About You,” “You’re Crazy,” “Anything Goes” — have more vitality and spark than anything on either UYI disc. Chinese Democracy, as weird and overcooked and airless as it is, is a better album, too. (Go listen to it. It’s at least half brilliant.) When I started writing this, I thought I would come away with more positive thoughts. But I’m stunned by how little desire I have to listen to any of this music ever again — not even the new, more orchestral version of “November Rain,” as great a job as they did with that.
Guns N’ Roses’ time passed long ago. And since I missed out when these records were new, the reissues don’t even offer me the pleasure-charge of nostalgia. Listening to all 150+ minutes was a fucking slog.