Use Your Illusion I

Guns N' Roses

Geffen, 1991

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


I remember it well… I was in college and eagerly awaiting the heralded release of new material from Guns N’ Roses. I remember rushing from my morning classes to drive to Crow’s Nest Records in Crest Hill, Illinois—a place where I spent far too much money when I was a college student, and I miss intensely—and plunked down my hard-earned money for both new CDs, each sharing the name Use Your Illusion, rushing back to my dorm room to work in listening to these while getting through the rest of my classes that day.

And… I remember being fairly unimpressed. This is what we’d waited four years for? Over the years, the discs became less and less frequented in my search for entertainment, to the point they were simply there for occasional dusting in the Pierce Memorial Archives...

Until now, that is. Thirty-three years after these hit the shelves for the first time, has my opinion softened over time? As these were individually released, I’m choosing to treat them as separate releases, rather than two parts of an overall set. So, back into the player for the first time in a long while went Use Your Illusion I…

Let’s address the elephant in the room: I don’t care who the band or artist is, when you have as massive of a success as Appetite For Destruction was, there is absolutely no way anything that follows it will be nearly as powerful or awe-inspiring. So, Axl Rose and crew were already well behind the eight ball; how does one follow up one of the most successful hard rock debuts of all time?

It must be said that Use Your Illusion I is, at its core, ambitious—perhaps overambitious in many ways. Rose and crew seem hellbent to prove that the success they experienced with Appetite For Destruction (and, in some ways, the criticism they earned with some of the lyrical content on G N’ R Lies) was deserved by plowing through 16 songs dripping with profanity and numerous musical style changes. All of which, by the way, was wrapped up in a mix that tended to blur Rose’s vocals to the point that you often need the lyric sheet to decipher what he’s singing.

Many of the songs tend to mirror real events in the lives of the band members. “Right Next Door To Hell,” the opening track, appears to stem from a confrontation Rose had with a former neighbor, and tries to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was “Welcome To The Jungle.” It doesn’t quite work, and sets a tone for the album that there is going to be quite a bit of displaced anger scattered throughout both albums. (Disc two seems to hold a bit more of that… but that’s another review for another day.) Similarly, the album’s closer “Coma” does touch on overdose situations that Rose and guitarist Slash had gone through, though how much of the lyrical content is autobiographical, I’m not certain.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Some of the track selection on Use Your Illusion I is questionable. Why Guns N’ Roses—arguably the biggest band on the planet circa 1991—needed to cover Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die” is a huge question mark, but there it is. Admittedly, the band does a version that is extremely close to the bone, but its presence is still a head-scratcher.

Similarly, “You Ain’t The First” is one of the last things you’d have expected from Rose, Slash and crew—namely, a bottleneck blues-oriented number. Is it bad? No, not by any means of the word. But it does feel a bit out of place here, and might have been a better fit on G N’ R Lies or another disc that leaned heavily on acoustic work.

What I won’t do is qualify “November Rain” in that same category, though. Guns N’ Roses had proven that they could handle ballads with “Patience”… and while I will always prefer a version of this song featuring only acoustic guitar, vocals and light percussion that was on a bootleg album for Appetite For Destruction, this one has grown a little bit on me over the years—even if it’s a bit overblown at times with the orchestration.

For this listener, the best track on Use Your Illusion I is “Dead Horse,” one that successfully integrates more than one style into a solid rocker that demonstrates Guns N’ Roses had lost little of their power, even with changing out drummer Steven Adler for Matt Sorum and adding keyboardist Dizzy Reed.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the disc is mired in tracks that just feel and sound like filler—or, even worse, ideas that had not been fully developed yet and could have been far more powerful tracks. “Garden Of Eden” falls in the latter category, and quite possibly could have been one of the standout tracks on this disc, had a little more time and effort been put into its development.

And, while I am by no means a prude when it comes to language, one has to wonder just how much of the profanity thrown into the mix on this one was really called for, and how much is simply there for shock value. “Bad Obsession” is a track that, without use of a few choice words, could have been a track that rightfully would have fit onto the airwaves. As it stands, though, no station would dare touch it unless they had already placed their license into the mail to the FCC.

The overall mix of the album is, quite possibly, its biggest downfall. On the more balls-to-the-wall numbers, Rose’s vocals sound like they haven’t been mixed high enough, and he ends up getting partially drowned out by a sea of guitars and percussion. I’m not certain just who to point the finger of blame at with this one—Rose and Slash both had their own ideas of how the sound should be, while co-producer Mike Clink certainly earns some of the criticism—but I can’t help wondering how this would sound remixed properly and remastered.

As it stands, Use Your Illusion I is not the powerhouse follow-up one would have hoped for from Guns N’ Roses. It most definitely has its moments to celebrate, but in the end fizzles out. I do seem to recall liking this one more than Use Your Illusion II (which is on the short list of discs to listen to next), but I’ll admit walking away from this one feeling a little better about it than I did way back in 1991. It’s most certainly not going to knock Appetite For Destruction or even G N’ R Lies out of regular rotation on my playlist, but it does suggest there were still signs of brilliant fire in Guns N’ Roses.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B



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