Security was so tight surrounding the simultaneous release of Guns N’ Roses’ two new albums that Geffen Records would not lend me an advance copy. I had to go to the label’s offices in Hollywood, where I was searched and my purse temporarily confiscated. Only then, with no chance that I might tape the CD or walk off with it, was I allowed to hear all 2 1/2 hours of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. ”What’s the world coming to,” I thought, ”when reviewing a record feels like being in jail?”
But what’s the world coming to when one of its most popular groups is also one of its most unmanageable? Guns N’ Roses have gained more fame for their riots and uncontrollable blasts of temper than for the excellence of their mega-platinum albums. This probably won’t change with the two Illusion records, and that is unfortunate because the group’s antics pale in comparison to the unbridled power of these 30 songs.
What makes Guns N’ Roses stand out is their understanding of a crucial contemporary duality: How can you maintain innocence when you’re constantly assaulted with small-screen images of hate, fear, and destruction within the confines of your own home, let alone what happens when you step outside? The band’s often-neglected search for light is honest and open, and so is its fatal attraction to darkness; on both Illusion albums the quintet teeter-totters between the two extremes. ”There’s a heaven above you, baby,” Axl Rose croons reassuringly on ”Don’t Cry” from I, but on the very next song, ”Perfect Crime,” he swears menacingly, ”Don’t f— with me.” On II, that violence springs to life on ”Get in the Ring,” when Axl spews vitriol at the press. His defensiveness is especially unnerving in light of a tune like ”Estranged,” a tale of lost love that is so full of naked emotion that it’s almost painful to hear. When a group is so openly willing to bare its soul, Guns N’ Roses seems to say, does anyone have the right to play the role of judge and jury? Over and over, in tunes like ”Bad Obsession,” ”Don’t Damn Me,” and ”Locomotive,” they answer with a resounding ”No!”
Musically, the two albums are as diverse as the band’s moods. On I, the psychotic nature of Guns N’ Roses is expressed in the otherworldly blues of ”The Garden,” in which Alice Cooper adds his wicked vocals to a couple of verses, and in ”Coma,” a shredding, frighteningly realistic account of death. II offers the fire of ”Shotgun Blues.” ”I” also contains the classically arranged ”November Rain,” and II has ”So Fine,” a tune that’s half torch song and half honky-tonk blues. To view this band merely as hard-rockin’ bad boys is a big mistake. They also write songs that are complex, structurally and emotionally.
Guns N’ Roses’ only problem is that they have yet to understand how to transcend their negativity. But they may be doing better than the many people who prefer to deny the dark side of themselves. No wonder Guns N’ Roses are controversial: In their own twisted way, they may be giving the world exactly what it deserves. A