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POP MUSIC : FALL ALBUM SPECIAL : Guns N' Roses' Double-Barreled 'Illusion'

September 15, 1991|ROBERT HILBURN

*** 1/2

GUNS N' ROSES "Use Your Illusion I"

****

"Use Your Illusion II" Geffen

By releasing two 76-minute albums simultaneously, Guns N' Roses lives up to its reputation as rock's most unruly, indulgent and audacious band.

Good for them.

Would this massive body of work have been more consistently stirring as a single album? Absolutely. But that's true of every double-album set ever released, from the Beatles' celebrated "White Album" through U2's "Rattle and Hum."

Yet the heart of this bold pair of albums offers one of the most sprawling and seductive examinations of rock 'n' roll darkness, dreams and doubts since the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" in 1972, making them both indispensable works.

In the albums, Guns N' Roses continues to examine the issues of fast-lane excesses and consequences that were outlined in its 1987 blockbuster debut, "Appetite for Destruction," but the songs are not carbons. At the same time, the band shows added ambition and authority as it moves in new and accomplished directions.

Crucially, the group isn't clinging cautiously to the music and image that made "Appetite" such a hit. Instead, it freely follows its musical instincts. The only constant in "Illusion I" and "II" is the brash defiance of rules--including rock 'n' roll ones.

This almost obsessive independence--reflected in everything from the more than 2 1/2 hours of music to an exceptionally wide range of emotional shadings--gives the two albums excitement and power at a time when even the strongest rock bands stay within safe boundaries.

Because groups from arena giants to cult favorites have been rendered impotent in recent years by fears that changes could offend their present or potential following, adventure and risk have become almost extinct in pop.

Metallica took a major step toward breaking out of its particular metal ghetto with its latest album, in which the band attempts to reach a wider audience without sacrificing integrity or power.

In these two albums, Guns N' Roses takes even more chances--and, in the end, gives us more.

There are mistakes--including a too-conventional cover of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" on "Illusion I" and some songs that flail at insignificant targets. Yet these albums should likely seize the center stage this fall in rock. It'll be the music you'll need to hear--and debate. Opinion is certain to be wildly divided because the collections, too, are unruly, indulgent and audacious.

Guns N' Roses leaves itself open to attack on many fronts. There are moments that hard-core fans may ridicule as too soft (a ballad, "November Rain," in the graceful tradition of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me") or that critics may attack as too insensitive (there are almost as many references to "bitches" as you'd find in an N.W.A collection).

Similarly, there are songs on the album that parents may brand as too troubling (the general rejection of authority) and mainstream pop audiences may reject as too venomous (tirades against real or imagined foes, including a slap, in "Get in the Ring," at magazines that the band feels have mistreated it).

In alienating all these audiences, Guns N' Roses establishes a creative tension on the records that seems refreshingly genuine. You feel throughout both albums that you are listening to real people struggle with real issues in their lives--mainly trying to understand and sometimes combat their own worst impulses.

Guns N' Roses is still fascinated by the fast-lane temptations and dangers of the urban jungle, but the songs aren't just standard expressions of rock 'n' roll bravado. These looks into the belly of the beast are often accompanied by a melancholy, or sometimes urgent, cry for escape.

Sample lines from "Next Door to Hell," from "Illusion I":

When your innocence dies

You'll find the blues

Seems all our heroes were born to lose.

Innocence, too, continues to be a focus for the band--not just sentimental look at the past, but the wistful yearning of someone looking for the home he never had.

Sample lines from "Yesterdays," from "Illusion II":

'Cause ye s terday's got nothin' for me

Old pictures that I'll always see

Times just fades the pages

In my book of memories

Prayers in my pocket

And no hand in destiny

I'll keep on movin' along . . . .

While the band continues to operate roughly in the blues-rock textures of the Stones and Aerosmith, highlighted by Slash's Keith Richards-influenced guitar work, it introduces a few new wrinkles. Rose, whose snarling vocal style is one of the most distinctive in rock, continues to be the dominant voice, but guitarist Izzy Stradlin sings lead on a few tunes, an effective change of pace on this long musical expedition.

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