Monday, February 14, 2011

The Ballads of Guns N' Roses

After the smashing success of their 1987 debut album Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses followed with the 1991 release of Use Your Illusion, a double album. I've always had mixed feelings about this album, which some have called GNR's White Album. While there are plenty of hard-driving, frenetic rockers that satiated my desire to duplicate the style of Appetite, I thought it would have been better to take the best of both parts and combine them into one because I found too much self-indulgent filler, soft piano bits, radio-friendly sound, and too many ballads. Guns N' Roses' early material strikes me as raw, authentic, tough, and honest, and while parts of it are undeniably brilliant, too much of Use Your Illusion comes off as a pretentious attempt to do "serious" music.

Recently, I have begun re-examining my initial perception of Use Your Illusion. Perhaps because I, like a lot of fans, view this album as the beginning of the end for GNR - the start of a downward spiral that would lead to a long hiatus only ending when Axl Rose reformed the band with a new lineup - that I unfairly took my disappointment out on this album. Maybe instead of wishing the classic line-up had continued on with the longevity of the Rolling Stones, I should have appreciated this effort. I still prefer Appetite, and while parts of Use Your Illusion are pretentious and self-indulgent, it's actually a pretty stellar release.

In that state of mind and being that it's Valentine's Day, I decided to examine three songs off the album that comprise an unofficial trilogy: "Don't Cry," "November Rain," and "Estranged." All three are ballads, were turned into hugely expensive music videos, feature some of Slash's best guitar solos, and were inspired by a story by Del James called "Without You." More importantly (at least for the purposes of this blog entry), they're about lost love, loneliness, and sorrow. Most surprisingly is how beautiful I find them.

Keep in mind, song meanings are open to interpretation. I wish I could say how the songs are built with technique and style, but I'm not as musically knowledgeable as I'd like to be. These are just how the songs make me feel.

"Don't Cry" is the fourth track off Use Your Illusion I, and it's about a break up. The man can see the woman wants to say something and understands how he feels, so he tells her not to cry; she'll feel better tomorrow, but she should remember how he felt. Don't cry because "there's a heaven above you;" things will work out in the end. "Don't Cry" is the most traditional hard rock ballad of these three. It doesn't feature any outside instruments, retains a consistent structure throughout, and is the shortest. It's a really good song to listen to when you're feeling down. No matter how bad things may get, someone's looking out for you, and life will get better.

"November Rain" is the tenth track off Use Your Illusion I. Of these three, it definitely gets the most radio airplay (although nowhere near as much as "Sweet Child 'O Mine"). It begins softly with a piano and builds with symphony instrumentation and synthesizers until finally we get the first solo by Slash. In fact, the rock instruments - guitars, bass, and drums - augment the strings, piano, and vocals, existing more as background. Only Slash's solos are as prominent, and they're epic. Looking back, I was always stunned this was from the same group that did "Welcome to the Jungle." "November Rain" is about the fleetingness of love. Love and happiness is like a warm candle in the cold November rain; it won't last forever, but you should cherish it while you can.

"Estranged" is the eleventh track off Use Your Illusion II. Nearly nine-and-a-half minutes long, its almost a hybrid of the hard rock roots of "Don't Cry" and the symphony of "November Rain." It changes rhythms and focus and is hard to pin down. Once you think it's sticking with one style, it shifts into another. Axl opens the song almost whispering, creating this mental image of a man huddled alone in the dark after losing everything. But like "November Rain," it builds up and becomes more powerful, assertive, and almost defiant. Then it slows down for another piano interlude, as if stopping to think about what's been lost. By song's end, the love is gone, but it's accepted. Now the whispering man can move on as he remembers that holding on to the lost love was dragging him down.

Pretentious? Sure. Ambitious? Absolutely. Filled with brilliant music? Yes. These three ballads certainly are different from the angry, rowdy street boys of Appetite for Destruction. I can't say I prefer Use Your Illusion to GNR's debut album, but at least I can say I'm not dismissing it anymore. Great music is great music, and as weird as it is for me to say this, these three songs from a hard rock band are beautiful.

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