Using My Illusion: Building The Perfect Third Guns N' Roses Album.

Part I: Why Are We Even Talking About This?

It's been a rough last couple of months. I've been attempting to survive on my income from working at the magazine ever since last fall, when the last of the three bookstores that employed me over the course of the past 12 years went out of business. I don't make much, but if I'm careful, I can get by. However, life is full of unforeseen circumstances, and between car problems and medical expenses, I've been hit hard over the last few months. My records, which have remained in boxes ever since I moved into my current apartment two years ago for lack of adequate shelving, have started to come into play as a resource to help make ends meet. Even though they've been cooped up for as long as they have, I haven't been able to make myself sell very many of them--too much sentimental value, too strong a belief that one day I'll get my shit together and be able to display and listen to them again--but I have been dipping into the boxes when I need extra cash. I hate doing it, but a few times over the last few months, it's been unavoidable.

The last time I was at my local used record store (Steady Sounds on W. Broad St), I was keeping myself occupied while Marty, one of the owners, was checking out the records I'd brought in. I'm fascinated by cassettes, for reasons I have previously written about, and so I always check the tiny cassette rack that they keep in a neglected corner of the store. This time, I found copies of Use Your Illusion, Parts I and II, for a dollar each. After checking to make sure they both still had the pressure pad (they did), I decided that if I got enough for my records that I had money left over after covering my imminent bills, I was going to buy these two tapes. It didn't end up mattering, though, because when I told Marty I wanted to buy the two tapes, he grinned and said, "You know what? I'll throw those in." Good guy, Marty. If you're in the area, you should definitely stop in at Steady Sounds--you can buy whatever the heck I've had to sell this month.

Anyway, thanks to Marty's generosity, I found myself the owner of two Guns N' Roses albums I hadn't owned since late adolescence. Back in 1991 when Use Your Illusion was initially released, I was 15 and at a transitional point in my life. In the process of transforming from an early-adolescent metalhead to a late adolescent punk, I'd picked up Nevermind (released only a week after the Use Your Illusion two-fer) around the same time, and cut off my mullet (which still seemed unironically cool to me in the early 90s) in favor of a spiky Sid Vicious-style punk haircut by the end of that year. But Appetite For Destruction had been my favorite album in 1988, and the buildup to the release of Use Your Illusion had been rolling for so long and accumulated so much hype that there was no way I wouldn't buy it once it was finally available. It's funny, by the way--at the time, the wait between G'n'R Lies and Use Your Illusion, which lasted just under three years, seemed interminable. I'm sure that was partly because I was between the ages of 12 and 15, and time just moves slowly when you're doing that much growing. But regardless, after waiting 15 years for Chinese Democracy, in hindsight the time between Guns N' Roses' second and third albums seems like an eyeblink.

Even at 15, I knew that two double albums was too fucking much music to release all at once, as something that at least fit some definition of a unified album. At 30 songs and nearly 160 minutes, it was even harder to digest in a single sitting than other sprawling double albums I'd encountered by that point in my life--Quadrophenia, The White Album, hell, even Chicago Transit Authority (don't scoff until you've listened to "Free Form Guitar") were much easier to absorb. I tried at the time to condense Use Your Illusion into one album, and was generous enough to use a 90 minute blank tape rather than the length of a single CD (which is around 10 minutes shorter). I still couldn't really figure out what to keep and what to get rid of. I was taken in by the hype, in a number of different ways. Were all those long songs obvious bloat, or were they the album's indispensable centerpieces? "Coma," from Use Your Illusion I, at 10:14 the longest track on the album, seemed like it must be of paramount importance. But what about "Estranged," which occupied a similar role on Use Your Illusion II and was 9:24 in its own right? Could I cut "The Garden" despite its prominent guest vocal by Alice Cooper? What about all those songs that Izzy sang lead on? Hell, what about the song Duff sang lead on?

In some ways, it's really depressing to think about how long it's been since I sat on my bed on Saturday afternoons trying to figure out these issues. But the perspective provided by a couple decades away from these albums has clarified a lot of my feelings about them. Listening to them over the past couple of weeks, I've developed a fresh viewpoint on this material that perhaps would have been impossible to derive at the time. These days, it seems a lot of people consider Appetite For Destruction to be the only completely worthwhile thing Guns N' Roses ever did. G'n'R Lies has some good songs, but is spotty and two-faced--obviously nothing that was ever intended to hold together as a complete album. Chinese Democracy is a universal laughingstock (although honestly, I like it, and I'm not the only one). And the consensus on Use Your Illusion seems to be that yeah, it's got a few good songs, but for the most part, it isn't worth the trouble. In 1991, people said that it was overlong, but pretty solid; clearly, the conventional wisdom has drifted a bit southward since those days. So to say this in 2013 puts me a good bit farther out on a limb than I would have been in, say, January 1992, but I'm going to say it anyway: Use Your Illusion's only true crime was its length. With a good editor, Guns N' Roses could have released a significantly shorter album that would have shut down the doubters and stood the test of time. It would never be the equivalent of Appetite For Destruction, but it could at least have left a positive impression in hindsight. At this point, I think I finally have the proper perspective to create the edited version that these guys always needed. And since no one else seems to give a fuck at this point, why shouldn't I be the one to put it together?

Part II: The Format

Here's what I decided: I needed to get Use Your Illusion down to the length of a single CD--somewhere below the 79:57 threshold. I wanted to sequence it so that it'd split up pretty evenly across a double vinyl LP. I figured I'd have to cut around half of the songs in order to do this, and some would be more justified than others. What stood out to me in researching this album and its lengthy trail of singles, videos, and ancillary releases was the fact that seemingly everything that had been recorded during the years of sessions for Use Your Illusion had made it to the final album. Singles like "You Could Be Mine," "November Rain," and "Don't Cry" had either album tracks, or worse, A-sides from previous albums, as their B-sides ("November Rain"'s B-side was "Sweet Child O' Mine"). So I figured the better outtakes could be used as B-sides, which probably would have boosted single sales and created some excitement around releases that didn't really matter to fans at the time.

This sort of use could also have been beneficial for a few of the most worthwhile tracks from 1993's "The Spaghetti Incident?", a cover album the majority of which had been recorded during the Use Your Illusion sessions, then retracked with Gilby Clarke on rhythm guitar once Izzy Stradlin left the band. It sold a few copies at the time of its release, and as I remember, the cover of 1957 Skyliners doo-wop track "Since I Don't Have You" got a fair bit of play on MTV at the time. Still, make no mistake, "The Spaghetti Incident?" is a throwaway collection of mostly-mediocre versions of what amount to hoary old chestnuts in the punk world (though maybe they still had some novelty value for Axl and co, who--aside from Duff--were more like metalheads with a side interest in the New York Dolls and Sex Pistols than anything else). It probably should never have come out, and even its three or so best songs only deserve secondary B-side status. But we'll talk about that below.

Part III: The Songs I Cut

Figuring out what to drop is a three-part process, each of which is more difficult than the last. But in the interest of getting through this as quickly as possible, let's start with the easy part.

Obvious Deletions:

None of this shit should ever have seen the light of day. If Axl hadn't been so wealthy and on top of the world at the time, he still would have been a bipolar control freak with anger management issues, but his megalomania probably wouldn't have escalated to the point that he'd have included any of this stuff. Unfortunately, no one was in a position to challenge him at the time. Let's go song by song and explain why someone should have.

"My World" (1:24): This 90-second raging blurt of drum machines and third-rate industrial cliches stands at the very end of Use Your Illusion II like a dictionary illustration for the word "anticlimax." It's barely more than a single verse over a pounding backbeat, and contains porno samples of girls moaning, as if it's a bad Lords Of Acid or 2 Live Crew song. It barely justifies itself as a song, and how it ended up on the album is an even bigger mystery than our next rejection.
Preferred destination: the cutting-room floor

"Get In The Ring" (5:41): Believe it or not, this one confused me as a 15 year old. Were Axl's name-naming rants against journalists actually an important component of this overall sprawling statement? And what about the fact that the verse riff and chorus are really quite catchy, and that the song really kind of holds up, at least until 2:50 in, when the rant starts? Maybe if I could have gone into the studio with these guys and forced them to do a shorter edit of this track without the complaining... but for this edit, I decided that the songs had to stand up in their final, released form, and oh good lord, this song does not. Yes, it's kind of hilarious to realize that someone sold millions of albums that contained this particular sentence: "Bob Guccione Jr at Spin--what are you, pissed off because your dad gets more pussy than you? Fuck you! Suck my fuckin' dick!" but calling this childish harangue "not a good look" for Axl is the understatement of the century. "Get In The Ring" stands as a firm testament to just how off the rails Guns N' Roses already were at this point. No one should ever have heard this song.
Preferred destination: On a DAT that wasn't found until a police raid of one of Axl's condominiums sometime in the mid-2000s, at which point it'd get leaked onto youtube by Perez Hilton or TMZ and everyone (except Axl, of course) would have a good laugh.

"Live And Let Die" (3:04): Cutting a 30 song album's two covers is an obvious choice, but it's also important to note that this cover is an over-the-top slice of ridiculousness, featuring horn sections and what sounds like timpani, flutes, and other orchestral flourishes, all produced within an inch of its life. Covering this is a bad idea in itself, and the final result is fucking awful.
Preferred destination: Some soundtrack that nobody bought for a big-budget flop movie that nobody saw. It could have replaced "Sympathy For The Devil" on the Interview With The Vampire soundtrack or something, and "Sympathy" could have stayed on the Fallen soundtrack and then only been in one movie instead of two. But hey, pick a big-budget disaster from that era. Any of them will do.

"Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (5:36): This is another matter entirely. G'n'R had been playing this track live since early Appetite days, and they had a great version of it that they really made their own. Even with the soulful gospel backup vocals by The Waters, which I really don't think belong, this is a track I consider very worthwhile, and it definitely needed to come out. The thing is, it already had--it was on the soundtrack to Days Of Thunder in 1990. So why rerelease it? I guess once you're planning to do two entire double albums, you may as well throw it in there, but if we're trying to be at all judicious, this one stays cut. It can be a treat for the fans who dropped the money for the soundtrack, rather than making them feel like idiots for bothering when it shows up on the album a year later.
Preferred destination: see above.

"Don't Cry (original)" (4:45): One of the versions of "Don't Cry" had to go, and while this is the version that was a hit single, it's the version I'm choosing to cut, because it has really generic love song lyrics that seemed Mickey-Mouse to me even at 15. The alternate lyrics are significantly better, and deserve to be the ones everyone remembers.
Preferred destination: "Don't Cry" 7-inch B-side. The "Don't Cry" single was just both versions of the song, with the "(alt. lyrics)" version on the B-side. Why not just flip the versions, and give fans who bought the single a version of the song that they didn't already hear on the album?

Other people's songs:

I don't really know why any of these songs made it onto the album, but I feel that they diluted the thematic unity of the album by making G'n'R sound less like a unified band and more like a bunch of dudes all in the studio demanding a turn at the mic. These guys weren't the Beatles, and they shouldn't have tried to adopt the Beatles model once they got famous enough that they could get away with it. All it did was make them less good. So here are some tracks I'd cut because they aren't really Guns N' Roses anyway.

"So Fine" (4:06): Um, sorry Duff. But yeah, this is a pretty boring nonentity of a track, one of a significant portion of songs that I rediscovered upon my recent re-acquisition, because I had completely forgotten it in the interim. It's eminently forgettable--a ballad that McKagan wrote for Johnny Thunders, who died six months before Use Your Illusion came out. That's sweet, as is Duff's solo cover of "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" on "The Spaghetti Incident?" But there's no way in this world that this song justifies inclusion on this album. Duff's hackneyed bar-band blues cliches and ridiculously slurred vocal delivery are just cheesy as hell. Ugh.
Preferred destination: What about a one-off Duff McKagan solo single with this on the A-side and "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" on the flip? They could have advertised that the members of Guns N' Roses guest-starred on the A-side, and fans who bought the single as a novelty would thrill to Axl's deep croon on the first few lines of each verse of "So Fine." Plus, it'd be a lot more accurate to call the B-side a true Duff solo song, since he himself sang lead, played acoustic guitar, bass, and drums on it, and was backed by some guy named Richard Duguay on lead guitar, rather than anyone from G'n'R.

"Dust N' Bones" (4:58), "You Ain't The First" (2:36), "14 Years" (4:21): Time to perform a similar triage on Izzy. What was the deal with so many of his lead vocal turns making it onto the album, and in such prominent positions? All of these tracks are boring Rolling Stones retreads, with "You Ain't The First" standing as Izzy's attempt to knock off the acoustic tracks from Exile On Main Street (and failing miserably). The other two here are better only in the sense that forgettable mediocrity wins over dumb crap. There was a fourth Izzy lead vocal on the album, "Double Talkin' Jive," but I left it out of this segment for a reason. We'll talk about it later.
Preferred destination: Izzy quit the band six months later anyway. Couldn't he have saved these for the first JuJu Hounds LP or whatever? Alternately, assuming he wasn't planning his exit by the time Use Your Illusion came out (and maybe he wasn't--I really don't know), maybe place these as B-sides of the "Yesterdays" single. "14 Years" as the 7 inch B-side, with both "Dust N' Bones" and "You Ain't The First" on the 12 inch/CD maxi-single. It could definitely work if Izzy could be talked into it.

Unworthy Mediocrity:

This is the really difficult part. Now that we've dropped nine obviously out of place tracks, what do we do to whittle things down from 21 songs and still somewhere north of 100 minutes to make it all fit on one CD? One song at a time, I suppose.

"Bad Apples" (4:28): The first to go once I reached this stage. This is an Axl song that is open to the same criticisms I directed at the Izzy songs we were discussing above. If anything, though, I feel like Axl was less trying to knock off the Stones than he was attempting to jump on that 70s boogie revival that folks like Great White and Faster Pussycat were having short-lived success with at the time. Slash, Duff, and Izzy all helped write this one too, so I'm sure Izzy's influence was part of that, but the barrelhouse boogie piano makes me think of Jack Russell doing "Once Bitten Twice Shy." And whoever wrote that Living Colour-style riff that starts and ends the song should be ashamed.
Preferred destination: The "Don't Cry" maxi-single--either in 12 inch vinyl or 3 song CD form--could have included this track after both versions of "Don't Cry." I think it would work there. And if you're a big enough G'n'R fan to pick that thing up just to hear a single outtake and an alternate version of "Don't Cry" with inferior lyrics, you'll probably be a big enough fan to enjoy this song.

"Bad Obsession" (5:29): Haha oh lord. Here's another embarrassing pile of post-glam neo-blooze boogie garbage. What the hell were these guys listening to in the studio? Did they really think they needed to compete with Taime Downe or the guys in Tesla or something? Slash's turn on slide guitar is well done, and I'm sure they were stoked to have Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks play harmonica, but the only thing I really remembered about this song is the part where Axl yarls "I call my mother... she's just a cunt now." I don't get along too well with my mother either, but that's just in poor taste.
Preferred destination: I'm not sure if there was a "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" single when it came out on Days Of Thunder, nor if any of the other tracks recorded for Use Your Illusion were finished enough to show up as B-sides on said single, but this is an alternate reality trip here, so let's pretend they were. We can put "Bad Obsession" on the 7 inch B-side, and to keep some thematic unity, put the (not-specifically-too-great) version of Peter Laughner's immortal "Ain't It Fun" from "The Spaghetti Incident?", which also features Michael Monroe, on the maxi-single. Bonus--if that decision had been made, the released version of "Ain't It Fun" would have had Izzy on guitar. And maybe it would have been better. Maybe.

"Shotgun Blues" (3:23): This is where things start to get difficult. There's nothing inherently terrible about "Shotgun Blues," and it's definitely a continuation of the classic G'n'R sound from Appetite. But it's just not A-grade material. In fact, I'd say it gets a C-minus. That "Eh, you're blowing smoke/I think you're one big joke" bit is a really phoned-in insult from Axl, who should do better. It's the way the song ends that really pushes it into "outtake" territory, though. While Axl's brief rant ("You think anyone with an IQ over 15 would believe your shit? Fuckhead!") is not as facepalm-worthy as "Get In The Ring," it is distractingly bad, and makes you wonder who the hell he was ranting at on this track. Steven Adler seems like a likely candidate.
Preferred destination: Throw this one on the 12 inch/CD maxi-single for "You Could Be Mine" and hope everyone forgets about it.

"Pretty Tied Up" (4:48): The pseudo-sitar at the beginning gives me weird premonitions of Chinese Democracy's "Riad N The Bedouins," but I liked that song a lot better than this one, which just kicks into another dated-sounding post-glam boogie riff once it gets going. Subtitled "The Perils Of Rock N' Roll Decadence," this track's lyrics are strange to me. They stop short of full-scale condemnation of the groupies that bands like Guns N' Roses used to sleep with back on the Sunset Strip, but they definitely seem to take a condescending attitude about those girls "knowing their place" and not being "gold diggers" or whatever. I feel like they're going "We've used these girls for years and now that we're famous they want something back from us--that's fucked up," which is a much more fucked-up attitude to take than they think. Other songs on this album might seem more misogynistic on the surface (don't worry, we'll get there) but I think "Pretty Tied Up" is the track with the deepest expression of those types of feelings. And the music is in no way good enough to offset that--so away it goes.
Preferred destination: The combo of this track on the 7 inch and "Shotgun Blues" on the maxi-single would have been a nice double-dose of immature rockstar attitudes for the B-side of "You Could Be Mine," right? I think so.

"Coma" (10:14): Well, here we go. With six songs (20% of the album's tracks) clocking in at over 7 minutes, something was going to have to give. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that "Coma" had to be the one to go. It's a fascinating track on some levels; based around a cranking heavy riff from Slash, the main verses are dark and driving. Listening to Axl attempt to process his issues with bipolar disorder, mood swings, drug problems, and continual self-destructive behavior through a long, sprawling lyric seemingly sung from inside the head of a rock star (presumably Axl himself) who has finally pushed things too far and torn his entire life apart, putting it in real danger of ending, is fascinating. Lyrical passages like "I wish you could see this--because there's nothing to see. It's peaceful here and it's fine with me. Not like the world where I used to live. (I never really wanted to live.)" and "I wish that I could help you with what you hope to find, but I'm still out here waiting, watching reruns of my life" are insightful and affecting. Did it help him to write this song? 22 years later, seeing how he still behaves, I'd have to say no. If anything, I'm sure Axl is just in a different terrible mental place than the one he was in in 1991. And that's sad. But what about "Coma"? What do we do with this song? Well, honestly, the reason I chose to cut it is that it drags on several minutes too long. The dramatic interludes--with the doctors zapping the patient as he flatlines and a demonic voice speaking in the background, or with several women (credited as "bitches" on the lyric sheet--charming) ranting at him about his personal failings--attempt to add melodrama, but end up overwrought and wasting time that could be trimmed from the song's bloated length. The final two minutes, in which the band plays the last riff over and over as Axl rattles through verse after verse at top speed, seemingly trying to cram every line he'd written for the song into the amount of time he had left, is a squandering of the dramatic momentum that had previously been built up. And really, for an album whose long songs are often its greatest strength, this is the most flawed of them. So it goes.
Preferred destination: I hear they released a "November Rain" 7 inch single, but how you cram a 9 minute song onto one side of a 45 (or even a 33) RPM 7 inch is beyond me. It probably sounded like garbage. I certainly don't suggest plopping "Coma" on the other side of such an already-strained vinyl disc. But I do think it'd be cool to see this track on a 12 inch/CD maxi-single backing "November Rain." As a track placed as a centerpiece of an overlong album, "Coma" is a bit of a letdown. As a single B-side, it's probably good enough to cause a fair amount of excitement amongst a rabid fanbase. It could hold the same kind of "ultimate revered B-side" role in the fan community as "Yellow Ledbetter" does in the Pearl Jam fan world.

"The Garden" (5:22): This was difficult. As a 15 year old, I had plenty of friends who thought "The Garden" was garbage, and I'd always end up going, "I don't know, I kinda like it," immediately getting shouted down by my friends in amusedly aghast derision. I didn't fight too hard with my friends about it, because I knew--and still know--that this song doesn't quite work. Alice Cooper was in a late career renaissance at the time, scoring Top 40 hits at the tail end of the glam era with tracks like "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein," so it made sense to have him do a star turn on this track. However, the parts of the song that don't contain Cooper's vocals are the good parts. The song's mellow, airy, and somewhat wistful verses and guitar breaks make me think of Blind Melon a little bit--which makes sense, as Shannon Hoon is all over Use Your Illusion (his guest appearances were why I knew who Blind Melon were when they came out with their debut a year later)--but "The Garden" was actually co-written by Axl and West Arkeen, who also helped write "It's So Easy," "Yesterdays," and a few other G'n'R tracks before dying of a drug overdose in 1997. I'm not sure if it's his contributions that give this track its otherworldly air, but I definitely dig that part of the song. However, with Alice Cooper butting in every so often to make the whole thing sound a bit off, I have to axe this one.
Preferred destination: Well, if there was a "November Rain" 7 inch--or, more likely, a cassette single--this would be the perfect B-side. Combining this song with "Coma" and "November Rain" for a 12 inch/CD maxi-single actually results in a 25 minute release, which probably would have seemed like enough of a bargain to drive sales. Ah, what might have been.

"Double Talkin' Jive" (3:29): This is the only song here that I almost put on the final album. I really like the chorus ("get the money, motherfucker, cuz I've got no more patience"). The thing that ended up forcing me to axe this track is the Izzy vocal on the verses. It's just so boring and forgettable that it fades into the background. The result is that this song sounds like a brilliant chorus marooned within a sea of monotonous thudding. There's nothing else here but the chorus, really. No harmonic or melodic color at all. It's just a slate-grey wall of perfect boredom. It sounded weak next to the other songs that made the final cut, so at the last minute, I switched it out.
Preferred destination: "Civil War" was originally the B-side to "You Could Be Mine," which was a terrible idea. They finally figured out it deserved a single of its own around 1993, I guess because so many other singles from these two albums had done well. The B-sides were just other tracks from the album, though. Instead, the "Civil War" 7 inch/cassette single should have gotten this track, and the maxi-single could have also carried the covers of "Attitude" (Misfits) and "Human Being" (New York Dolls) that eventually ended up on "The Spaghetti Incident?" All of the other tracks from "Spaghetti Incident?" that I haven't already placed somewhere should probably just never have been released.

Part IV: The Final Album

So this is it: 14 songs, 78 minutes, which I think would have added up to a truly dominant followup for Guns N' Roses. The result will all fit on one CD, but I also put it together in a way that would split well into four sides of a double LP, and I'll group these tracks according to those four sides. For the most part I left the order the same as it would be if you placed the current versions of Use Your Illusion I & II back to back and removed everything I didn't want to keep, but there is one big change in running order, which we will discuss soon. Here we go:

Side One:

"Right Next Door To Hell" (3:03): This song rules. In fact, I love it so much that, when I decided to tape over my original 90 minute mix of Use Your Illusion, I left this song at the beginning of the tape and covered the rest with a weird mix of underground shit I taped off the local university radio station. This is a fast, driving rock song that is probably as much or more punk than heavy metal, even if we're thinking of metal in the late 80s terms that made G'n'R metal in the first place (I doubt anyone would see them that way if they came out now). Izzy wrote the riffs on this track as far as I can tell, so the fact that they sound like NY Dolls/Sex Pistols riffs makes a ton of sense. The "fuck yoooouuuuuu bitch" bit that Axl leads into the guitar solo with has always struck me as a bit of a non sequitur, but I recently learned from the Use Your Illusion I wikipedia page that this song is about a female neighbor he hated, which explains a lot about this song, really.

"Perfect Crime" (2:24): After eliminating the three songs that originally stood between these two tunes, we've ended up with an excellent one-two punch to start this album--much like the one-two punch of "Welcome To The Jungle" and "It's So Easy" on Appetite, though these songs are significantly faster than those two. That's not to say that they're better--those two tracks are classics. And "Perfect Crime" isn't exactly flawless--from about 1:03 until 1:30, this song has a bunch of weird stuff going on that might have improved the song by being left off (kind of a running theme with even the best songs on this album)--but the vast majority of this track rocks and rolls quite awesomely, and the gleefully profane chorus ("Goddamn it, it's a perfect crime! Motherfucker, it's a perfect crime!") is as much fun to sing along with at 37 as it was at 15. For years and years, whenever I would get away with some shit I wasn't supposed to do at some crappy retail or fast food job I used to have, this song would pop into my head and I would cackle to myself. A truly perfect crime would probably involve something a little more severe than getting to work a half-hour late and having no one notice, but you take your small victories where you can get them when you're a lowly working-class drone.

"Back Off Bitch" (5:04): So, Axl Rose's misogynistic streak rears its ugly head once again. And maybe I should have left this song off the album for that reason. Truth to tell, it was very nearly bumped in favor of "Double Talkin' Jive." But as I said when talking about that track, I just couldn't justify including it. It wasn't a good enough song. And you may hate the things Axl says about one of his exes in "Back Off Bitch," but you can't deny that it's a rockin' enough song to deserve a spot on the edited version of this album. It may not be as fast and hard-hitting as a few other tracks here, but it definitely has the rock n' roll swagger these guys got down to a science on tracks like "Nightrain" and "My Michelle." And come on, let's be real--if you're gonna dig on Guns N' Roses records at all, from any era of their existence, there's a certain amount of problematic misogyny you are going to have to deal with. They're like the Rolling Stones that way. I would think if the lyrical content of this track was enough to scare you away, you're not reading this post in the first place.

"Locomotive" (8:42): Here's our single big-time running order switch. "Locomotive" shows up over halfway through Use Your Illusion II, and with its surroundings being tracks like "Shotgun Blues," "Pretty Tied Up," and "So Fine," it makes perfect sense at that point in the album. But I eliminated all those tracks, so now, if it stayed where it was originally located, it would stick out like a sore thumb between "Breakdown" and "Estranged," plus Side One would run through three heavy rockers and then end with "November Rain," which is just terrible flow. I had to do something, so here's "Locomotive"--two and a half sides before it would have showed up, but providing a much more appropriate emotional tenor for this point in the album. I gotta say, I love this track. I have no idea why this one ended up being an epic-length rocker--I feel like it would have worked just as well clocking in at somewhere between four and five minutes--but I don't think it suffers at all for the extra length.

The main portion of this song, which is the majority of its length, is based around a few Stonesy riffs from Slash, who does a great job of constructing a steadily building rock n' roller with a good verse, a solid pre-chorus that's clearly ramping up to an excellent chorus, and then, my favorite shit--a choppy, somewhat mathy chorus in which Matt Sorum's drumming shines like a star. Then there's a post-chorus bridge with a bunch of stompy wah-wah stabs and more awesome drum-pound from Sorum, over which Axl drops a masterful vocal part ("I know it looks like I'm insane--take a closer look. I'm not to blame") that is constructed to hide the fact that the part Slash, Sorum, and the rest of the band are playing behind him is not two but three-and-a-half lines, counted in some weird beat-dropping manner that I still don't quite get. The verses on this song are elongated enough that every time the chorus is finally reached it hits you like a six-foot wave breaking on the shore, and somehow after six minutes, you've still only gotten three of them. At the end of that third chorus/bridge sequence, Axl sings, "If love is blind, I guess I'll buy myself a cane," and at that point, an interesting but not entirely essential piano-driven coda fades in. I feel like this was Axl's "Layla" moment--it definitely sounds like something he had written that he said to Slash, "let's tack this other bit on the end of that song, give it a nice melodic fadeout." It definitely stretches "Locomotive" out more than it needed to be stretched, but it also sounds great as a side-ender, so I can't hate on it. And hearing Axl croon "Oooh, so strange..." over and over as Dizzy Reed and Slash trade melody lines like Duane Allman and Jim Gordon works for me. "Locomotive" is up there with "Right Next Door To Hell" (and a couple of tracks we haven't yet talked about) as one of the main reasons I still hold Use Your Illusion in high esteem.

Side Two:

"November Rain" (8:58): You know, I could have tackled this album with the goal of pretending like I had no idea what had happened when it actually came out--that I'm unaware of what the hit singles were, or which songs were most important to various members of the band, or whatever. If I had done that, I might very well have left this song off. My opinion on it has fluctuated over the years. Chuck Klosterman sorta-kinda shits on it in his book Fargo Rock City (though in fairness to Chuck, what he really hates on is the video), and at my most punk moments, I would agree with that. It's an overproduced, ridiculously layered ballad, which was performed live on some MTV special featuring both Elton John on second piano and an orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen (whose name I recognized from my dad's New York Rock Ensemble albums), but on the album is merely augmented by tracks upon tracks of synthesizers, and apparently nearly a dozen backup singers taking the form of a choir. So I mean, what kind of garbage is this from the band who wrote "Welcome To The Jungle"?

But I can't hate. The truth is, this is a masterfully written composition by Axl, who had appaently been working on it for nearly a decade by the time it was recorded. His lyrics are not nearly as complex or interesting as some of the other epic tracks here ("Locomotive" is a good example, actually, as is "Estranged"), but they're not totally dumb like "Don't Cry"'s original lyrics, so I'm cool with them. And the song was the kind of crossover hit that became the final song at prom night at high schools all across middle America for years afterwards. My stance on Elton John, and people trying to write songs like his, has softened considerably since the early 90s, and while I still won't put on one of his records by choice, I will listen to people like Lady Gaga and Axl Rose do their best imitations of him. "November Rain" is a really, really good sappy piano ballad. It's got a few blazing solos from Slash (I always got chills as the climactic solo is about to start in the video, and Slash climbs onto Axl's piano to play it; Klosterman's right, the "November Rain" video is a bit of a nonsensical clusterfuck, but the performance footage in it is cool as hell). It's probably the best-known song out of all 30 on these two original albums, and from everything I read in interviews at the time, it was regarded by Axl Rose as his masterpiece. So at the end of the day, I can't fuck with it. "November Rain" stays, and it deserves to.

"Garden Of Eden" (2:42): It's kind of funny to charge right into the most punk rock thing on this entire album as soon as the final piano and guitar notes of "November Rain" fade away, but I've listened through a few times, and the transition totally works. "Garden Of Eden" isn't much different than "Right Next Door To Hell" or "Perfect Crime"--the main difference is that Axl crams in quite a few more words, which was why the video's follow-the-bouncing-ball conceit was so funny. But it rocks just as hard, and I still love hearing it. I'm not sure how the weird sound effects that show up at spots like the beginning of the last verse got in there, but they don't wreck the flow of the song, so hey, whatever. This one's not deathless or important or epic or anything like that--it's just fun. But if you're gonna have a bunch of 7-minute epics on your album, breaking them up with catchy, fun rockers is a hell of a lot better than making everyone sit through half a dozen mediocre 70s boogie ripoffs.

"Don't Damn Me" (5:19): Even as a kid, I could tell that this one mattered. With all the 7-plus minute monsters on this album, it was easy to figure that song length was the true gauge of importance where the tracks on Use Your Illusion were concerned, but "Don't Damn Me" is the biggest hole punched in that whole theory. The fact that Axl put together some really great lyrics for this track probably wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't had some really great riffs to sing over, but Slash provided in fine fashion for this track, and the verses are upbeat and catchy as hell. There isn't a true chorus, I don't think, just a few different riffs that are in the same tempo and use some of the same chords. They switch back and forth throughout the song, with breakdowns and tempo changes to break things up being rare. And yet it all works--every time it circles back around to the riff over which Axl begins the song by singing the title, it's a thrill. And then to hear him laying out manifesto-like declarations such as "Be it a song or a casual conversation, to hold my tongue speaks of quiet reservations. Your words, once heard, can place you in a faction. My words may disturb, but at least there's a reaction," or "We take for granted that we know the whole story. We judge a book by it's cover and read what we want between selected lines. But don't hail me, and don't idolize the ink, or I've failed in my attentions. Can you find the missing link? Your only validation is in living your own life--vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time" is just outstanding. Instead of wasting his time fucking around with "Get In The Ring," Axl should have let this song stand as the response to his critics. There are so many more good lines than the ones I've quoted, and as an explanation for the way he approaches life, it holds up quite well, and explains a lot. I know Axl is struggling with something that I assume is bipolar disorder (though it may be borderline personality disorder--both would make sense), and I have to figure he was in a much better place when he wrote this song than when he wrote some of his more petulant tunes from these albums. It's a shame he didn't have the insight to keep the latter under wraps.

"Dead Horse" (4:18): Another one that I just fucking love and have a ton of sentimental attachment to. I can imagine that there are those who hate the purposely lo-fi acoustic intro, but I think it's essential. "Sick of this life, not that you care" is such a great opening line. It pops into my head a lot when I'm bummed out, but the rest of this song takes that rather dark sentiment in a slightly more positive direction. "Dead Horse" is about trying to make the best of a bad situation in an interpersonal relationship, and maybe it's about Erin Everly, or Stephanie Seymour, or ... who knows, man. I'm sure Axl wrote it about one of his intense, doomed love affairs. That's not what's important, though. What makes this track work is the country-blues riffing, Axl's passionate vocal delivery, and the way they add up to a really catchy no-frills tune that stands out so much more than a lot of the filler that bloats the original versions of this album all to hell. It's strange to think that a song that's basically just one four-chord riff could work so much better than a lot of other tracks that were significantly more complex, and yet, there we are. Someone should have gotten that shit out of the way, let this one track stand in for all of it, and moved on. It's a shame that's not what happened.

Side Three:

"Civil War" (7:42) It's interesting that, based on my edits, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II end up having much more contrasting and distinctive individual characters than the actual albums that were released ever had. "Civil War," which was the first song on Use Your Illusion II and begins the second 12 inch of my edited vinyl version, marks the point at which that becomes obvious. I know there are some out there who might think this song was too old to justify its appearance on this album, having been out for nearly two years by the time Use Your Illusion was released, and even featuring Steven Adler instead of superior Use Your Illusion-era drummer Matt Sorum on it. To those people, I say: You're wrong. "Civil War" is an incredibly important song in Guns N' Roses history, not to mention that it's one of the best things they ever did. To have it only ever appear on a charity compilation full of ancient rock dinosaurs would have been a fucking travesty. Nope--"Civil War" needs to be here. In the era when we were all waiting for a new G'n'R album, it stood as proof that Guns N' Roses were still good, still able to crank out something worth our time. What's more, they were growing in interesting ways that proved their talent. We'd heard them cover Bob Dylan before this, but nobody knew they could write a song this complex and multi-faceted and still make it every bit as good as "Sweet Child O' Mine." So yeah, this is an important track that absolutely needed to be here.

I'm not sure I can explain what it is about this dark, half-speed track that is also not a ballad that made it so riveting to me as a kid, and still sounds gripping even now. I feel like I'm describing its importance by talking about what it did, and not how it sounds. But if I'm not convincing you, it's a failure on my part, not this song. The darkly poetic early verse, accompanied mainly by piano and bass, has one mood, while the more dramatic guitar-driven verse that it shifts into moves things in a different direction. And it builds as it goes, accumulating a frustrated resentment culminating in Axl's accusations, spit at the powers that be in abstract terms that nonetheless make totally clear where he's coming from. It's an interesting viewpoint--an anti-war song, released at the height of the extremely popular Gulf War, that takes the position that war is bad because what we're really doing is grinding up and spitting out the working class in order to facilitate the whims of the rich people who run everything. That's why a song that talks about foreign wars the United States is involved in is called "Civil War"--because the war Axl's really concerned with is the war being waged on the kids he went to school with who join the army due to a lack of other economic options, and come home in body bags. It's all spelled out in simple terms in the chorus (which all of you still reading should be able to sing from memory right now, so I won't type it out), but I find the verses more interesting: "All these dreams are swept aside by the bloody hands of the hypnotized, who carry the cross of homicide. And history bears the scars of our civil war." It's rare you hear anyone bring these kinds of topics up, and especially in such a pointed fashion, from a position as close to the mainstream as that of Guns N' Roses in 1990. So kudos to them. I hope they got through to some people.

"Yesterdays" (3:16): This is the really great ballad on this record if you ask me. "November Rain" is cool, but this song is my jam. I can remember seeing a G'n'R special on MTV in 1988, something that was produced right around the time G'n'R Lies came out, and there was a part where Axl and Izzy were sitting on a couch, singing this song while Izzy played acoustic guitar. I only ever saw it once, but I still remembered this tune three years later when I finally got Use Your Illusion, and was stoked to hear it show up on the record. It's got an elegaic feel, to some extent, and the fact that the lyrics are about "yesterday" tends to make people think of it in the same way that they think of songs like "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" by Boyz II Men. I found a video on youtube that mixed this song's original video with clips from whoever made the video's senior year of high school, which was totally weird--mainly because "Yesterdays" has the opposite lyrical message from what that Boyz II Men song is saying. "Yesterday's got nothing for me," Axl sings on the chorus. "Some things would be better, if we'd all just let them be." Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin are from a small town in Indiana, and I'm not at all surprised that a song they wrote about looking back on the old days would have an anti-nostalgia message. Those were not the good ol' days for Axl and Izzy. They weren't the good ol' days for me either--my adolescence in a small Virginia town is an era I'm not sorry to have put completely behind me. I don't know anyone from those days anymore, and I don't have any mementos of that era of my life (unless the oldest tapes in my record collection count). I'm fine with that. Yesterday's got nothing for me either.

"Breakdown" (7:05): This is not a perfect song, but I dig it. I like the country-ish inflections that come through early on in the song, and the way the verses sound yearning and inspirational, like a song you'd put on at the beginning of a road trip. I'm not always happy with the vastly increased role of piano on Use Your Illusion, but there's a lot of piano on this song, and it works for me. In fact, I don't think this song would be nearly as good with more heavy guitars in evidence on it. Izzy plays an acoustic throughout, and I think that's just about perfect. The only thing that hurts my enjoyment of this song is on the chorus, when Axl sings the song's title, and then overdubs himself in a deep, portentous voice, saying "Lemme hear ya now." Argh! That part is dumb. But it's the only flaw in an otherwise great song, and that chorus part only comes around three times, so it's not a dealbreaker by any means. I just wish it wasn't there.

One other thing about this track--it ends with a long solo by Slash, over which Axl recites a snatch of dialogue from surreal, psychedelic early 70s crime/hot rod film classic Vanishing Point. It's a monologue originally delivered by Cleavon Little in his role as a blind disc jockey who is somehow using his radio show to narrate the main character's high-speed flight across the desert. When I finally saw Vanishing Point in 2005 (which I rented from Netflix after it was mentioned in Death Proof), I remember Cleavon Little delivering those lines and sitting on my couch thinking, "Why is this so familiar? Where have I heard this before?" It wasn't until I re-acquired Use Your Illusion a few weeks ago that I figured it out.

Side Four:

"Estranged" (9:24): I very nearly cut this one--perhaps in favor of "Coma," or a couple of the shorter songs. I might have done so if it weren't for the fact that the morning I was first contemplating which of these songs I'd include, I found myself with the first half of this song stuck in my head while driving around running errands. Over and over, I kept thinking, "When you're talking to yourself, and nobody's home..." and then after a few minutes, finding myself humming Slash's first guitar solo. The first few minutes of this track have an essential melancholia to them. It captures a dark, mournful mood that is one of the things I love most in music. Yeah, the video for this song was ridiculous--CGI dolphins? But it'd be unfair to think of that when I'm trying to evaluate whether this is a solid piece of music. It's really irrelevant to how deep and dark the first several minutes of this song gets. "Old at heart, but I'm only 28," Axl sighs at one point. "And I'm much too young to let love break my heart." Then later, attempting to cover his desperation with some sort of bravado, he sings, "How could you say I never needed you, when you took everything from me?" And Slash fires up the downcast electric guitar lead again, and damn. How can I deny this song? I can't.

What is a shame is that "Estranged" doesn't maintain this mood throughout. It starts digging itself out of the depths at around the 4:15 mark, and has turned into a more upbeat piano ballad by the halfway point. I don't like these later moments as much, which is funny because what the song really does to lose me, at least somewhat, is to add in a bit of hope that leavens the despair of its early moments. It never gets fully happy, so I can't even complain about that. I guess I just think it's better when it's darker. Slash's guitar solo at the 6-minute mark is still great, and there are some good lyrics and nice melodic turns later in the song. But the feeling put across in those first few minutes is apparently unsustainable, and that keeps "Estranged" from really being one of the best songs here. Still, it's pretty goddamn good.

"You Could Be Mine" (5:44): This song is the most clearcut successor to the Appetite For Destruction sound. The production is far more polished--Duff McKagan's bass lines in particular have a brightness to them that was never present on Appetite--but the midtempo guitar raunch n' roll sound here hearkens back to songs like "Welcome To The Jungle" and "Mr. Brownstone" more than anything else on this album does. I think it's for that reason that this song is one of the only ones specifically created for this album (as opposed to "Civil War" or "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," which were older) that G'n'R purists will give the credit it deserves. I used to have some friends who did a G'n'R tribute act for a while, and this was the only post-Lies song they did. It made sense. And of course, I have to include it on this album for that reason, even though the truth is that I think "You Could Be Mine" is one of the weakest tracks that's still made the cut. I mean, it runs rings around "Dust N' Bones" or "Bad Obsession," so don't get me wrong, but the fact that this is the song that people like the most from this album when "Right Next Door To Hell," "Locomotive," and "Garden Of Eden" exist is kind of a shame. But hey, it was the big advance single that doubled as a contribution to the Terminator 2 soundtrack--and it does fit well with the best of the early G'n'R tracks. So it deserves to be here. Even if I do think it's overrated.

"Don't Cry (alt. lyrics)" (4:44): And now we can finally wrap this whole thing up, with a ballad Guns N' Roses had been playing since before they recorded Appetite For Destruction and which definitely has some great guitar melodies running through its verses. And finally, without "My World" tacked on afterwards, this album has an ending track that makes sense. Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon duets with Axl on this track, and that's how I first heard of that band, but his vocals on "Don't Cry" are so high that it wasn't until I saw the video that I realized he was a man and not a woman. I knew I'd pick this version of "Don't Cry" over the original version from the second I started planning this particular edit, and lines like the opening: "If you could see tomorrow, what of your plans? No one can live in sorrow--ask all your friends," or from the final verse, "When you're in need of someone, I won't deny you. So many seem so lonely with no one left to cry to" are the reason. They are more nuanced, more intelligent, and offer a touch of ambivalence rather than a simple, straightforward love poem, and all of those elements appeal to me greatly.

Part V: Enough

So there you go. That's my one-disc/double-LP edit of Use Your Illusion. I don't have Spotify or whatever, but you should definitely turn it into a playlist and give it a listen. I guarantee that it will come across at least twice as well as the original albums did. It was never about the songs being bad, after all--it was just that there were too goddamn many of them. And now there are probably way too many goddamn words in this entry--which I have been writing all day. So let's stop here.



Duality of self, separation from wholeness.

I've been listening to Underoath for the better part of a decade now, and while it sometimes surprises me that I continue to play their records so frequently, all I have to do is listen to them again to realize why that is. Their music speaks to me on a deep level that most other musicians have been unable to reach. I'm still not at a point where I will tell people that they are one of my favorite bands, but in real terms, I probably play their records more often than those of the bands I do claim as favorites. This feels strange to me, for a variety of reasons. For one, as an agnostic with tendencies towards atheism, it's odd to feel such a deep connection to the music of an openly Christian band who regularly make reference to their religion in their lyrics. Furthermore, Underoath are generally regarded as music for teenagers who shop at Hot Topic. Their music is not regarded as serious, and the emotion that fuels it is seen as immature. The genres in which they can most easily be filed--metalcore, emo, screamo--are also seen as insubstantial; rockcrit types write them off as insubstantial, commercial in that they appeal to superficially rebellious teens who, again, will outgrow them by the time they're out of college.

And yet, for all that, I cannot help but love Underoath. The standard state of my emotions is also lumped into that immature teenaged pigeonhole, regardless of the fact that I'm in my mid-30s; our society's discussion of such things has no way of dealing with emotional problems that carry past adolescence besides labeling them as arrested development, which is a fact that I consider a failure on society's part. There absolutely is validity in the idea of emotional struggles continuing well into adulthood, and being part of our lives for most if not all of the time we're alive. I think maybe it even helps that Underoath are Christian; within a religious framework, they are given much more freedom to discuss issues like this openly and without risk of condemnation. In fact, I see Underoath's mindset as particularly advanced in light of the typical Christian mentality in America. Where a lot of American Christians follow the hard-right political party line of evangelical Christianity, buying into an idea of spiritual materialism that seems explicitly opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Underoath have openly advocated for liberal political positions. Vocalist Spencer Chamberlain has also talked in interviews about his struggles with drug abuse and mental illness. That's probably why I've seen myself in so many of the songs they've written; their album Define The Great Line was a concept album about struggling with suicidal impulses, and finding the hope and the will to turn away from those thoughts and believe that life was worth living. This sort of doubt and struggle is something that mainline American Christianity usually has no room for. You won't find most religious figures admitting to any sort of doubt--they're all about their solid, unshakable faith. Underoath are a band who manage to straddle the line between religion and humanity, between faith and doubt, and when they speak from that position, the things they say and the emotions they express are ones that I relate to.

Their most recent album, Lost In The Sound Of Separation, has been harder for me to connect with than the two that came before. They're Only Chasing Safety was the first album to feature Spencer Chamberlain on vocals, and the first one that I really loved. Previously, with Dallas Taylor still on vocals, they'd done an album called The Changing Of Times, which featured one song I'd really liked, "While The Sun Sleeps." On that song, drummer Aaron Gillespie did some melodic vocals which, when contrasted with Taylor's screaming vocals, sounded pretty great to me. I loved the way they mixed melody with heaviness on that song. When the rest of the album was much more straightforward in its heaviness, though, I couldn't find as much to get into. The introduction of Chamberlain into the band on They're Only Chasing Safety really helped, though. Once Chamberlain was in the band, he and Gillespie traded off on vocals more often than not, and all of the songs focused equally on melody and heaviness. Sometimes it seemed a little silly for the band's drummer to sing quite as much as he did on that album, leaving the actual singer with little to do, but a more equitable balance was achieved on Define The Great Line. That, coupled with lyrical topics that reached me on a deep level, made it my favorite Underoath album thus far.

Lost In The Sound Of Separation had a lot to live up to, and while I was very excited for it, and rushed right out to buy it, I was always prepared for it to be a letdown. I liked it when I got it, so it wasn't a total disappointment, but when compared to the two previous albums, I found it a bit harder to get into. For that reason, once I got over the novelty of a new Underoath album, I put it aside, and went back to spending a lot more time with They're Only Chasing Safety and Define The Great Line. Even though I certainly liked it, I don't think I ever connected with Lost In The Sound Of Separation the way I had connected with those two. When I was playing Underoath this moring, it was They're Only Chasing Safety that I put on. But tonight, I thought about how long it had been since I played Lost In The Sound Of Separation and decided to give it a listen again. And tonight, I heard a few things in it that I'd never heard before--things that helped me find a way into an album that had previously been somewhat of a mystery.

The Changing Of Times was the first Underoath album that attempted to introduce melody into their sound. The focus was generally on heaviness, though, and the album suffered as a result. Lost In The Sound Of Separation is the heaviest, least melodic Underoath album since The Changing Of Times, but it would be inaccurate to say that it suffers. Five years ago, it seemed that their songs were effective in direct proportion to how melodic they were. In the intervening time, though, Underoath have learned to make their heavy parts just as interesting as their melodies, perhaps because, with the focus on heaviness decreased, they had to make those parts count. The result is that when, on Lost In The Sound, they decided to focus more energy on being heavy, they were able to apply lessons they learned in the interim, and make the songs better than they would have been in 2003.

That said, the melodies were the most accessible elements of Underoath's songwriting on the previous albums featuring Chamberlain on vocals. Whenever a chorus came around, Gillespie would take the vocal lead, with Chamberlain reduced to occasional screams as counterpoint, or punctuation. Those choruses were the payoff to the buildup in momentum generated by the heavy riffs. On Lost In The Sound, the choruses are often just as heavy as the verses. In fact, there are songs here on which Chamberlain's screams are the only vocals. Opener "Breathing In A New Mentality" is one of these, and while terms like "emo" are frequently used to describe Underoath, there's nothing emo about this song. This is straight up metallic hardcore. As previously mentioned, Underoath have learned to use heavy parts to build tension and increase momentum. On this song, though, they are not building towards a melodic chorus. Instead, the buildup, which is fed throughout the first half of the song by a fast hardcore drumbeat and Chamberlain's howling vocals, is leading up to a neck-snapping mosh breakdown that hits 90 seconds into the album. The riff chugs in fits and starts, seeming more appropriate for desperate flailing than anything as structured as the sort of fist-swinging martial arts moves that dominate the mosh pits at the kind of shows Underoath play. That desperate flailing is there in Chamberlain's lyrics too: "Oh God, my hands are shaking again," he screams, ordering himself to "calm down" as he narrates his panic: "I can't feel the floor, and my vision takes its toll on me. There must be some kind of mistake." This sounds like the narrative of a drug trip gone wrong, and considering what Chamberlain has revealed about his struggles with addiction, there's good reason to interpret this song that way. As it ends, he attempts to give himself a pep talk ("They say I'll never change--I'll prove them wrong"), but ends up on the floor, begging for mercy: "Clean me up, show me how to live. Let me start again."

Without pause, the band slams into the second song, which is given a long and thought-provoking title: "Anyone Can Dig A Hole But It Takes A Real Man To Call It Home." In light of the way the song starts, it's impossible to take this title as anything but sarcasm. "I'm no leader, I'm just a mess," Chamberlain screams as the band blasts through an uptempo hardcore riff. "That's not the way it's supposed to be, but it's the way it is." It's not clear what he's blaming himself for here, but there's obviously blame being placed as he ends the first verse with the line, "I've led us all astray again," then screams "Oh, how the plot thickens!" over a guitar lead that flows into the next riff. The lines he sings on the next verse strike me as particularly poignant: "We always assume the worst. I'm afraid no one's listening anymore." This is a feeling I know all too well. And the song continues in this vein for its entire first half until, at the end of the second verse, Chamberlain screams, "I should have been gone so long ago." At this point, the music drops back into a quiet, pensive lull for the first time on the entire album. Aaron Gillespie is still keeping time on his drum kit, tapping the rims of his snare and floor tom, but other than some feedback and volume swells from one of the guitarists, this is all we hear for about 10 seconds. And then, for the first time on the album, he begins to sing.

On previous Underoath albums, Gillespie and Chamberlain's vocal parts were so evenly balanced that they generally just finished each other's sentences and combined in other ways to sing a unified vocal narrative. They still do this most of the time on Lost In The Sound Of Separation, but with Gillespie's vocals appearing less often, it opens the door for his vocal parts to take a different role. On "Any Man Could Dig A Hole," his voice seems to represent a different point of view than is expressed by Chamberlain. It's tempting, in light of the Christian slant of Underoath's lyrics, to see Gillespie as the voice of god (in the same way that Dan Hoerner's backing vocals on Sunny Day Real Estate's "Song About An Angel" represent the voice of god speaking to lead vocalist Jeremy Enigk's human character), but the lyrics don't support this interpretation. Gillespie is here representing another side of the same character that Chamberlain is playing--and if Chamberlain is singing from his own point of view, then Gillespie is the positive voice in the back of his mind, providing counterpoint to the panicked doomsaying that is running things up front.

Gillespie's vocals begin during the quiet drum break halfway through "Any Man Could Dig A Hole," and while this is probably a trick done in post-production, it sounds like he's singing from the back of the room in which the band is playing, and his voice is being picked up by the mics on his drums. "I can't get away from it all," he sings, his voice echoing through the airspace taken up by the song. "I messed up like I always do." And suddenly, the entire band is playing again, and Gillespie's voice has jumped to the forefront of the mix. "I gave you nothing, I took you nowhere, but you're still listening." Of course, this is a prayer. And yet, for an agnostic like myself, it seems like something else entirely. If Chamberlain's vocal in the first half of the song is self-flagellation, a desperate plea for forgiveness, Gillespie's vocal here is a recognition that, regardless of whether he deserves it, he still has the love and support of his friends. I've been struggling a lot lately with an inability to be the best friend I can be; I haven't been there for people, and when I am around, I feel like a drain on the energy of everyone in the room with me. Social interactions are hard for me at the best of times, and lately, I feel so desperately lonely and unable to connect with other people that, when I do get around other people, I find myself taking actions to alienate them and embarrass myself. Sometimes it is truly incredible to realize that my good friends still love me, still want me around, even in spite of how hard I can be to deal with. What Gillespie is expressing here is something I feel quite often, even though I can be terrible at expressing it.

The "separation" of this album's title is clearly a reference to separation from god, from a completeness and perfection that humanity keeps from all of us. To someone who believes in the Christian religion, this perfection is something that they hope to achieve after death, but will by definition prove to be elusive in life. And yet, they feel they must always try to be a good person, to get as close as they can to living a perfect life, so that they can be worthy of god's love and respect. I don't know about any conception of god, but for me, this struggle is reflected in my struggle to be worthy of my own love and respect. My ideas of what's right, what's good, and how I should be living all shift and change constantly, but I'm always trying to be as close to them as possible. And again, because I am human, I know I can't ever fully get there. In this way, I feel a kinship with the struggles of Christians, even if I don't believe in their god. And Underoath spend much of this album attempting to capture the duality of the human condition, the distance between perfect ideal and imperfect reality.

One of the most interesting ways in which they focus on this separation has nothing to do with lyrics. "Emergency Broadcast: The End Is Near" is the first Underoath song that I've ever heard that can only be fully understood when heard through headphones. Aaron Gillespie's drums are separated into two tracks and panned to the extreme left and right of the stereo mix; it sounds like there might be two different drum parts being played, but at first, you can't really be sure. It might just be a post-production effect. But as the song goes on--and it is the longest song on the album, nearly six minutes in length--differences in the two drum tracks become obvious. In one speaker, there will be a fill, while in the other speaker, the drums just keep playing the beat. At one point, during a short bridge, the two different drum tracks keep time in two completely different rhythms, both of which are appropriate for the part, but in combination are quite disorienting. Overtop of this multiplicity of beats, the rest of the band plays a dark, tribal rhythm that fits well with the percussion overload. Lyrically, Chamberlain struggles with the fact of his mortality, and the mortality of all things. But he doesn't come from the typical Christian perspective indicated by the song's title. This is not a Revelation-inspired pre-apocalyptic rant. No, in fact, it seems to be a political song. "We will be the new ice age. We will be the new plague. Disguised as a colony, we will wipe them all away. Feast your eyes, or just rip them out... We are the cancer. We are the virus." I can imagine Gehenna singing these same lyrics, the inherent despair in their pessimistic view of the human takeover of the Earth offset only by the song's final line: "Tell me it's not too late."

"We Are The Involuntary" is one of the album's best songs musically, and in giving the album its title, also makes overt reference to reaching for something divine. This one is about religion for sure. So why do I feel such a connection with it? "Hands in the air and love at our sides, there's got to be something bigger." I may not be reaching for divinity, but I feel this same desire in my life a lot of the time. It is hard to go through day after day feeling like your actions have no purpose. It's hard to deal with your life seeming meaningless, like you're just staying alive because of the survival instinct common to all animals. I've never been someone who was satisfied with being well-fed and comfortable. I want to be putting something into the world to make it a better place. Every time I go a day without writing, without using the talents I have to give, I feel like I'm wasting the day. "Under the glass behind it all, watch us crawl so fearfully," Chamberlain sings on "We Are The Involuntary." It's true--this is much of the human condition. Struggle, failure, fear, and regret. But there is another side to what we're capable of, and "We Are The Involuntary" showcases that side as well. For the first half of the song, Chamberlain sings all of the words over heavy, pounding verses and quieter but still dark and understated choruses that are more like a bridge than a true chorus. Halfway through the song, things start to fall apart, with the guitars degenerating into feedback as the drums are left to carry on by themselves. Chamberlain is screaming over this part, but even his voice isn't enough toe keep things together, and finally everything stops. After a few seconds of unstructured feedback, Gillespie's voice, almost inaudible, counts the band back in, and they launch into a heavy breakdown over which Chamberlain screams the album's title. And then the song changes completely. The guitars begin playing an understated melody, and Aaron Gillespie begins singing the lead vocal. The "hand in the air" line quoted at the beginning of this paragraph is his first line, and it's fitting that the song's emotional tone changes completely as he starts to sing it. "I'll come up for peace, I'll come up for truth," he continues, focusing on the positive things that make life worth it. Here again, we have opposite thought processes existing simultaneously, with Chamberlain and Gillespie representing the negative and positive sides of the same issue. These songs document the separation.

"Coming Down Is Calming Down" was my favorite song on this album the first time I heard it, and it still is a year and a half later. Unlike most of the songs on Lost In The Sound Of Separation, "Coming Down Is Calming Down" would not seem out of place on the previous Underoath album, Define The Great Line. Its musical structure is more akin to those used on that album, with heavy verses contrasting, and building towards, melodic choruses. Lyrically, it also fits with Define's songs of personal struggle, stepping away from the duality explored on much of this album to have Gillespie and Chamberlain speak in one voice again, seeking solace and reassurance in dark times. Therefore, I suppose, the song that I like the best on this album is not nearly as thematically linked to the rest of it as it is to the earlier Underoath work that I always liked better anyway. That's OK, though, because "Coming Down Is Calming Down" provides a more accessible way into an album that can be a bit inaccessible at first. If there hadn't been a song like this on here, I might have been a good bit more disappointed with this album than I otherwise have been. I might not have stuck with it long enough to make the connections I've made to it tonight.

But let's talk about this song for a minute. I don't know why it is that I've always related so strongly to Underoath's lyrics about depression and anxiety, since they are generally expressed as prayers to god. My best guess is that it's easy for me to transpose the pleading tone taken in "Coming Down Is Calming Down" and other, similar songs from one addressed towards a divine figure to one addressed to friends and potential friends. A lot of times, my depression takes the form of feeling like no one is listening, no one cares, and no one understands. I'm sure the more erudite cultural critics would consider such feelings, when expressed in song, cliched and immature. But when those musical expressions ring so true, and connect so deeply, not just for me but for many other listeners, it seems uncharitable at best, callous at worst, to turn up one's nose at songs that make thousands of lonely people feel a little less alone. When Aaron Gillespie leads into the chorus of "Coming Down Is Calming Down" by singing, "I've been losing my footing here," I know what he means. All too frequently, I sing along with it not just because I like the melody but because I've been feeling the same way lately. That isn't the line that hits me the hardest, though. What really gets me is what Chamberlain screams in the second verse: "I put my words out there for you to hear, but they never made much sense to you." This is my worst fear--that all of the writing that I do will never amount to anything. This is why I don't actively solicit paid writing jobs. I don't have enough confidence in what I do to believe that I deserve to make my living from it. Everything I've ever done for anyone else has been coincidental, something I've fallen into rather than something I actively tried to achieve. I'm terrified that if I worked towards making my words a way to keep me alive, that I would fail. I don't want to be a failure at the only thing I love to do, at the only thing that's ever made me feel like a worthwhile human being whose existence was justifiable. So when I speak, I do it quietly, in a little-used corner of the internet. I try to disturb as few people as possible. I want to believe that I deserve better, but I desperately fear that even this is too much to ask for.

There is no perfect version of me, not attainable through prayer or worship or any sort of blessing that will occur after I'm dead. At least, I don't think so. But I can't stop trying to believe that there is some better version of me, that I can improve, that I have free will and the ability to conquer my fears, to transcend my current lowly, struggling state. While I'm here, the music of Underoath makes me feel better, because they admit to their own doubts and speak their own fears aloud. More important, though, is the fact that they never lose hope. Even on an album that mostly focuses on Spencer Chamberlain's desperate, panicked screams, Aaron Gillespie's clean, melodic vocals step in on occasion to offer a hopeful, positive counterpoint. When I listen to Underoath, I feel like someone understands. But I also feel like things might get better. Maybe I am separate from the best version of myself that I can be, but in the music of Underoath, I find hope that I can get there someday. This gift, given freely, has such importance for me that any disagreement over religion pales in comparison. I'm sure I'll keep listening for a long time to come.



In/Humanity and alienation.

In/Humanity were from South Carolina in the early 90s, and at that point in hardcore's history, I would imagine that it was pretty lonely being a band in that style from that part of the United States. In/Humanity weren't your average hardcore band, either; from their earliest recordings, their lyrics indicated intelligence, insight, and an unique perspective into the issues of the day. On their first LP, The Nutty Antichrist, they released such songs as "Embrace Androgyny," "Southern Swastika" (a protest against the fact that their state still flew the Confederate flag atop their statehouse [it must have been so hard to be a punk in South Carolina back then]), and "Fuck the Death Penalty, Let's Compromise" (on which they advocated allowing convicted murderers to choose whether to be executed or to spend life in prison). They also showed a cynical, prankster-ish streak, though, as other songs, like "Teenage Suicide--Do It!" and "Stupid Children" made only too clear. The album ended with the title track, on which singer Chris Bickel told an anti-Christian joke that used his own name: "Jesus knocked at the door to my heart, said, 'Chris Bickel get out here right now!' Satan answered the knock at my door, and said, 'Chris Bickel doesn't live here anymore'." The lyric sheet contained a note encouraging the listener to insert their own name into the appropriate part of the song.

While Nutty Antichrist made it clear that there were intelligent and creative minds behind In/Humanity, its music was, for the most part, pretty conventional hardcore. It was very fast, featuring borderline blastbeat drumming on some tracks, and some interesting songwriting choices (the breakdown on "Stupid Children" and the false ending on "Teenage Suicide" stand out), but compared to some of In/Humanity's peers in the chaotic hardcore scene of the time, such as Antioch Arrow or Universal Order Of Armageddon, what they were doing on The Nutty Antichrist wasn't that weird at all. That started to change on the EP they released inbetween their two LPs, Your Future Lies Smoldering At The Feet Of Robots, on which they got slower, heavier, and above all, weirder. "Modern Hate Vibe" mixed standard fastcore verses with a chorus that was simultaneously melodic and disturbing, as a chorus of off-key voices low in the mix harmonized with Chris Bickel. They warbled and shuddered as they did so, sounding like a tape that had been dropped underwater. "Burn It To The Ground" was nearly four minutes long, an unheard of length for In/Humanity, and it based itself around a foreboding bassline that turned into a full-on headbanging breakdown on the choruses. In/Humanity had never seemed like a mosh band before, and they really didn't now either--the entire EP was a frightening listen, which made me too nervous to even contemplate dancing.

All of this was just a prelude, though, to their second and, it turned out, final LP, The History Behind the Mystery. That record centered on a murder mystery, the plot of which was told over the course of the last three songs on side one. Most of the plot was enumerated in the first song, "Mystery Solved--The History Behind the Mystery." The lyrics of this song consisted of short declarative sentences that would have fit well in a children's book, but for their morbid subject matter. "Ronald got up. Ronald found James. Ronald saw that James was dead. Ronald yelled. Everyone ran to Ronald. The others saw James. Everyone talked." The lyrics go on in this fashion, telling of cops and doctors and accusations and shootouts. In "The Execution of Clive," a much more standard hardcore song than the creepy, meandering "Mystery Solved," the butler is accused of the murder, attempts to flee, and is shot to death. But the real climax of the story is in the final song, "New Discarded Evidence In The Case." "James was so lonely. James only had his health. James was so lonely. James probably killed himself."

Basing an entire record around this bizarre version of a murder mystery seems to fit In/Humanity's mindset at this point in their careers. The real point they are making with the murder mystery is a despairing one, about the pointlessness of existence, and the seeming impossibility of making a real connection with another person. They begin making this point with the record's opening track, "If It's Wrong It's Real." Later, when creating a CD discography collecting their out of print vinyl releases, they changed the order of the songs completely and did some pretty serious remixing. At that time, they added a lengthy introduction to the song; the version on the original LP doesn't contain the sample. The sample is of a Satanic priest intoning an Aleister Crowley quote, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," and then leading a congregation in repeated chants of "Hail Satan!" Despite not having been a part of the original song, it's a fitting introduction. There is Satanic imagery all over the album's art, from the box of 666 cough syrup on the cover to the pentagrams that festoon the lyric booklet, the entire album is awash in the visual paraphernalia of Satanism. The LP comes with a 33 RPM 7 inch EP, which contains four more songs, collectively titled The Anakrinomphicon Quintilogy. That EP is so bizarre that it makes the main LP seem pretty conventional (which it’s not, at all). It also contributes significantly to the album’s visual theme of Satanism. No doubt In/Humanity would have told you at the time that this was all a joke, or at least intended somewhat ironically. In the clear invocation of Anton LaVey's Church Of Satan rather than a more pagan vision of Satanism a la Black Widow, my theory is that In/Humanity are making some sort of reference to humanity's innate selfishness. And I can't tell if that's a positive or a negative thing in their eyes--on the surface, they always presented themselves as taking a negative attitude towards humanity as a whole (see "Teenage Suicide--Do It!"), but the despairing emotional undercurrents that threaten to completely overtake both the lyrics and the music on The History Behind The Mystery make me think that this "hatred of humanity" pose is just cover for deeper pain.

Pain is the entire focus of "If It's Wrong It's Real." The explanation of the song’s lyrics that is given in the album’s liner notes simply reads “Suicide note.” The song begins with mournful strings playing a two-note drone, under which drummer Will Z. and bassist Ben Roth play an understated vamp. When Chris Bickel and guitarist Paul Swanson join in, though, the song seems to change completely, even though Swanson's guitar is playing the same slow two-chord melody that had been previously played by the string section. It's been transformed into a distorted howl, though, and Bickel adds a howl of his own, screaming in rhythm with the pulses of the guitar chords in a way that makes it sound like he isn't even saying any words. He is, though, and what he's screaming is one of my favorite lyrics ever:

I once said that I'd calm down if you'd be there when I came down.

It's hard to talk about this line, because it has such an intensely personal meaning in my own life, and I don't want to force that interpretation on words written by someone else, who may have meant something completely different than what I took from it. And yet, I feel like this line (and the lyrics to this song as a whole) have had so much meaning in my own life that even if I'm totally off-base in my perception of its meaning, it has to have some validity, some importance. I will proceed with this writing as if that's true.

I've spent plenty of time in my life struggling hard with lack of self-esteem, with depression so intense I could barely get through the day, with overwhelming desires to take my own life. The line I quoted above is a remarkably brief summation of how I often feel in relation to other people in my life when I am at my worst. I know it's wrong; I know that I don't have the right to lean on others, to make them responsible for my self-worth at times when I can't be responsible for my own. I know that I can't expect people to always be there for me, and I know that I can't expect to ever get past my feelings of depression and worthlessness if I can't believe in myself enough to not need the support of other people to stay alive. And yet, when you feel that crappy and you know you're on your own, it can be easy to point the finger at others, even if it's just in your own mind. It can be particularly easy to look to former lovers, people who were supposed to be there for you in a closer, more thorough fashion than anyone else, and blame them for your current emotional state. "You said you would be there for me, and you lied," you might find yourself thinking. "You were supposed to keep me from getting to this point, and you abandoned me." I have played out such imaginary conversations with exes in my head, knowing all along that the thoughts I was directing at them were invalid, that I had no right to expect such things of them. And yet, when you're at your worst, it can sometimes feel better to point the blame at others instead of admitting that it truly lies with yourself. (This problem is one of the things I started therapy in order to deal with. I'm happy to report that it has been working so far.)

When I feel this way, I know it's wrong. Chris Bickel does too. As the song progresses, it moves from the brutal, distortion-driven version of the string section's slow, mournful mantra into a faster, more conventional hardcore riff. That riff still sounds dark and ominous, due to the droning feedback and reverberating strings that still hover, deep down in the mix, throughout even the most energetic parts of the song. But it is fast, angry hardcore, even if Bickel has turned that anger inward. "All bliss is gone," he screams. "All love I kill." When feeling abandoned by someone who was supposed to love you, it's tough to face the fact that your own neuroses were often what drove them away. And yet, that fact can be impossible to escape. If you killed the love in the other person's heart, you might not want to admit that, but you know you did it. You always know. "All love I kill, and this is wrong," Bickel screams, further excoriating himself. "But if it's wrong, I know it's real," he finally declares, revealing the sentiment behind the song's title. Doing the wrong thing is often all that a depressed person understands. They (I) get comfortable with loneliness, fear of judgement, feelings of being outcast by society, and they stop knowing how to deal with the alternatives. Feeling wrong, feeling bad, is comforting, because it's what we're used to. If it's wrong, I know it's real.

The second side of The History Behind The Mystery only further emphasizes the mood created on the first side. "Too Drunk To Molotov" is a harsh attack on punk rock's ostensible status as a revolutionary counterculture. "We will fight them in the streets," the song begins, stealing the title of Minneapolis crust band Code 13's second EP to launch a criticism of the sorts of kids who had that EP in their collection. "Punk rock's nothing more than a Halloween costume contest to you," screams Bickel. "You're more concerned with the contents of that 40 bottle than the actual bottle's uses as an implement of state smashing destruction." One can imagine the sorts of punks that this song is about not being able to decipher what Bickel means with this complex statement, which again seems to be his entire point. The song's final line is screamed over a breakdown on which Paul Swanson plays zooming, descending chords that make it sound like his guitar is sick. "Too drunk to fuck shit up!" Bickel screams over Swanson's woozy guitar accompaniment, which manages to do a perfect sonic imitation of some kids in a spiked jean jacket staggering around with a 40 bottle in his hand.

On "No Thanks Mr. Roboto," Bickel references Styx to protest against his feelings of dehumanization. "I'm now a robot more than a man," he claims. "Lost my emotions to parts from Japan." The entire song makes references to lines from Styx's song "Mr. Roboto," and anyone familiar with that tune will be able to pick out those references easily. However, to hover over the lyric sheet trainspotting Styx lyrics misses the song's point. Again, that point is buried in the final line of the song, where it is easy to miss its importance. "You're in the ground and have been there for weeks," Bickel screams. "And now I can't hide the rust on my cheeks." Is this song really about someone attempting to deal with death through denial of their emotions? Well, it could be about a lot of other things too, and it probably is. But the final lines make a lie of all of the previous claims to no longer have emotions, and therefore kind of invalidate all of Bickel's previous protests of feeling dehumanized. Maybe it's more something he wants than something he's actually experiencing. Maybe his emotions are too hard to deal with, and he's trying to wish them away. I've wanted that many times in my life, and like Bickel, no matter how hard I wished, it never worked.

The History Behind The Mystery's clearest statement of alienation, of loneliness and inability to connect with others, is far less metaphorical and more literal than any other song on the album. It is the penultimate track on the album, and it's called "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other." As an expression of the way being in a band with someone can cause frustration, resentment, and eventually outright hatred for them to breed within you, it is far too accurate to have been intended seriously. "Thought you were a brother, thought you were a friend," Bickel begins. "But you told me something that I didn't like. What you said about me... was it out of spite?" In these two lines, which come near the beginning of the song, Bickel hits directly upon the problems that specifically afflict relationships involving people who struggle with depression. On one hand, there is the inability to take criticism. On the other hand, there is the constant fear of judgement, of secret hatred that is never revealed, of people laughing at you behind your back. Bickel might know that he's wrong to hold a disagreement with a friend against that friend on a permanent basis. He might equally know that his fear of being judged is paranoia that he shouldn't seriously dignify. And yet, those feelings remain. They grow, and they fester. Until: "Now I think you're a fucking jerk. You fucking fucking fucking jerk." This is where the song gets a bit silly. "Fuck you, Chris Bickel, fuck you, Paul Swanson, fuck you, Will Z., fuck you, Ben Roth," Bickel screams, finally dissolving into a frantically repeated chorus of "Fuck you"'s--16 in all. The fact that he names himself, and in doing so gives equal weight to the frustrations of his bandmates with him as he gives to his own frustrations with them makes the song seem less from Bickel's viewpoint than an ironic view of the tensions that exist within bands after they've been together for a long time. At the time, I took it as a joke. How could they have written a song as self-aware as this and still have been serious? And yet, In/Humanity only survived long enough to record one more EP--the truly bizarre Occultonomy. And even on that EP, Bickel and Swanson had replaced the band's rhythm section, bringing in two new members for a final incarnation of the band that still wasn't able to stay together for more than a few months. "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other" may have been intended as a joke, but it almost certainly also expressed some real, if buried, emotions.

In/Humanity - "If It's Wrong It's Real," "Teenage Suicide--Do It!," "The Nutty Antichrist," "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other"



Brave men run away from me.

Sonic Youth have been around for a very long time now, and the critical discussion around them as an important influence on the modern alternative rock world has coalesced around a few of the most influential moments in their career. Daydream Nation, of course, and Dirty, Murray Street maybe, definitely "The Diamond Sea." The unfortunate corollary to this fact is that huge swaths of their career are rarely discussed anymore. Amongst my friends, I notice that even the diehard fans only have a few of their records. And maybe it's my completist streak that's unhealthy and not their ability to get by with only three records by their favorite band, but either way it makes it hard for me to have quality discussions of the Sonic Youth album that has stuck with me the most over the last few years. No one I know has ever heard Bad Moon Rising.

But I want to talk about Bad Moon Rising here now, because I'm going through yet another one of my phases in which I play it every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and the more I play it, the deeper it pulls me in. There's so much in this record, I almost don't even see it as just a record anymore. It's like a 3D movie if 3D actually did what it's supposed to do: put you right in the middle of the movie, like it's not happening in front of you but all around you. That's how Bad Moon Rising makes me feel. I put it on and sink into a huge, surrounding atmosphere. Bad Moon Rising is structured like one continuous fever-dream reverie, a huge floating universe in the space between chords, a swirling vortex of alienation and horror and glorious transcendence, sending the listener flying through disparate emotions in close proximity, sometimes delivering all of them at the same time and leaving you to sort out how you actually feel. The band intended it to be an American travelogue of sorts, taking the name from Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1969 slice of hoodoo rock n' roll Americana and inspiration for the album's most famous song from the Charles Manson murders that the Creedence song seemed to predict. Anything you read about this record will tell you in detail about its attempt to reflect the dark side of middle American culture.

The reason Bad Moon Rising has stuck with me for so long, though, is not so much because of the resonance of its intended subject matter as because I have found a more personal meaning in its collection of songs, one that might not be borne out by the intended subject matter but is present in the music regardless. There are plenty of records out there designed for the listener who is questioning their place in the universe. Bad Moon Rising is not that. Bad Moon Rising comes from a place where the realization that there is no place where you will fit in has long since passed.

I'm writing this post on Valentine's Day, which I will spend alone, as I have for years. Valentine's Day ends a season that I sometimes think of as "the suicide holidays," and though I have obviously not yet killed myself I imagine that if I'm ever to do so it will happen sometime during this part of the year. When it's cold outside I already have trouble with depression, as the cold makes me want to stay in the house, and staying in the house makes me feel more alienated than I already do on a day to day basis. But then there's Christmas, and really the entire period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the huge consumer-culture push that focuses on familial connections in order to inspire cash outlays. I was working in a mall for that period of this year, so I couldn't escape it. I worked at a kiosk outside a jewelry store and a lingerie store, which collaborated to remind me daily that there was no romantic love in my life. I spent as little time at my parents' house over the actual Christmas holiday as I could, but I really can't be around my family at all without constant forcible reminders of our dysfunction, our inability to relate to each other. And then there was New Year's Eve, a time for drinking and celebrating the end of a year, which always seems so perverse to me. The end of a year just reminds me of all of the goals I set for myself and didn't meet. And then my birthday comes towards the end of January to reinforce that reminder all over again. Another year older, and what do I have to show for it? Time to accomplish things grows ever shorter. Finally, there's Valentine's Day, which reminds me once again that there is no romantic love in my life, this time twisting the knife a little bit with all of the visions of happy couples I must endure. I guess the fact that I'm writing this means I ran the gauntlet for another year, which is a worthy accomplishment, but makes me feel no less alienated from the world around me.

Bad Moon Rising begins with "Brave Men Run," and although that song is preceded by a short "Intro" that is labeled as a separate track, it's really just the beginning of that song. "Brave Men Run" begins with layered guitars playing interlocking chiming melodies, and when the drums and bass come in after a short pause, the entire band plays a midtempo riff that spirals upward gloriously, sounding like the basis for a gorgeous heavy-guitar pop song. However, just at the climactic moment, Thurston Moore loses the melodic thread completely, beginning to saw at his guitar strings wildly and causing the entire riff to derail. It plunges downward into an ambient bridge, and as Thurston and Lee Ranaldo pick out occasional disconnected melody lines, the bass and drums carry the song out into what feels like open space, aurally speaking, removing any riff-centric basis for the song and leaving a wide ambient area for Kim Gordon to deliver her vocals. It's only when this point is reached that she begins singing, and while the words escalate, bringing the song to a climactic point in which Kim howls its title, then expounds on the phrase: "...in my family, ...into the setting sun, ...into captivity..." Thurston and Lee are still playing their guitars behind her, but what they're playing has nothing to do with rhythm or melody or riff or anything--it's all just disconnected notes, accents as textures, with the bass and drums still carrying the rhythm of the song as they have throughout the vocal section. Finally, even the drums stop, and as Kim continues to play the first few notes of the bass riff, she whispers, "Brave men run away from me."

The entire song fades out here, but not into silence; instead, it disappears into a tape loop of the locked groove that ends side four of Lou Reed's guitar feedback symphony, Metal Machine Music. An album seen by many as directionless noise, I've always found Metal Machine Music to be beautiful, and I know I've come upon a kindred spirit when I run into someone who agrees. It makes me think that Thurston Moore and I would have some things to talk about if we ever met (which we never will). The origin of the Metal Machine Music tape loop's appearance on Bad Moon Rising was an onstage dilemma faced by Sonic Youth in their early days of being too poor to buy multiple guitars. They used different tunings for every song, and needed things to keep their live audiences occupied (and drown out hecklers) during the lengthy tuning breaks between songs. The tape loops ended up on the album, and indeed, "Society Is A Hole" seems to take its rhythmic basis more from the oscillating Lou Reed guitar feedback than from anything the band is actually playing. Because of that, the song starts before "Brave Men Run" really ends, and everything played by an actual member of the band during the song seems more like an accent added onto that basic foundation of looping noise.

"Society is a hole," Thurston sings, making his own alienation into a pun that works precisely because no attention is ever called to it. Bad Moon Rising doesn't always provide lyrical backing for my repurposing it as the soundtrack to my alienation, but on this song, it does so in spades. That said, I can't do much rational explication for lines like "You got big big hair and everybody's scared," or "My friends are girls wrapped in boys." You either know what those things mean or you don't, I'd say. Thurston intones all of these lines in a mournful monotone, sounding almost like the old hillbilly singers of the early 20th century, only without even a semblance of melody to guide his voice. It's as if a nightmare version of the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers only had the clanging rattle of the train's wheels to sing with, and had to stay with the same note all the time or risk going off-key. When Thurston isn't singing, the tape loop underneath Bob Bert's tapping cymbals and Kim Gordon's three-note bassline slides into the front of the mix, going against the grain of the song's actual tempo with its repetitive one-two rumbles and hums, sounding like train wheels clacking over tracks in super-slow motion.

The song ends when this tape loop is submerged under a horrible recording of "Not Right" by the Stooges, taped from a record player that seems to skip at least every third revolution, and making a three-minute song go by in less than a minute. As I said, it sounds horrible; the strums of the guitar distort into chopping scratches, and the beat is entirely inaudible. For young fans in the mid-80s who'd never heard the Stooges, it must have been impossible to figure out what this even was. But then, you could say that about the entire album.

The totally fucked incidental-music version of "Not Right" soon fades into a sound that I first thought were church bells. It soon becomes clear, though, that these are the dulcet strains of "I Love Her All The Time," its guitar riffs all consisting of shaking, rattling guitar strings and scraping atonal sounds. I don't know that this song is played entirely by beating on guitars with drumsticks and shaking them in front of amps that are feeding back, but if there are any actual strummed, chorded guitar parts, I don't hear them. Instead, there is Kim Gordon's two-note bassline, that moves from a note identical to the ones the guitars are spitting through feedback to a lower note that sounds sick, as if its ever-so-slightly out of key. It may be, since Kim Gordon has always played her bass in standard tuning, no matter what kind of weird tunings Thurston and Lee come up with for their parts of any given song. This note might be the closest she can get to an on-key note. It works for the song, though, as it is but one of several elements that make "I Love Her All The Time," however sincerely it was written (and I assume it was a sincere love song from Thurston to Kim, as the two of them got married around the time it was recorded), seem like a fucked-up parody of a love song. As ambiently constructed as "Society Is A Hole," "I Love Her All The Time" has even less of a foundation to build on, lacking even a tape loop to pull the whole thing together. The guitars ring like bells, scrape like wrecked cars on cement barriers, groan like dying dogs, but never create any sort of melody. Thurston's vocal doesn't pick up that slack, either. He's at least gasping in two different notes on this song--notes which, by the way, oppose rather than harmonize with the two notes Kim is playing on bass--but there's still more atonality to his singing than anything. Then halfway through the song, the whole thing implodes like a punch to the gut. Kim starts playing much lower notes, Thurston and Lee go into full-on feedback mode, and Bob Bert pounds his floor toms with abandon. If you're playing the record loud (and I always am), it feels like your entire apartment is shaking, like your speakers will drop through the floor into your downstairs neighbor's place if the pounding doesn't stop soon. It does stop--too soon, in fact, because if I'm listening to this record I'm probably praying for destruction--but that gut-churning middle section gives the lie to any conception of "I Love Her All The Time" as nothing more than a sincere love song. As does the end of the song, for that matter, as the drums during the final verse become nothing more than random crashes on a cymbal here or there before stopping completely, along with the bassline and any semblance of song form, at the end of that verse. There's still at least another minute of the song left, though, and it's all just sick, bent, grinding feedback. The guitars don't sound like they're in love; they sound nauseated.

Side two begins with "Ghost Bitch," which, like "Society Is A Hole," constructs its rhythm around noises that remind me of a train. Sonic Youth are the sort of band to sample the sounds of a train, and in fact did so on their next album, Evol, forming half of the song "Secret Girl" around a recording of a train going down a track. "Ghost Bitch" doesn't have clickety-clack noises, though--instead, a repetitive feedback howl that occurs at the top of every measure for the first half of the song sounds exactly like the horn of a train bearing down on a car that has stalled out on railroad tracks. It repeats for several minutes, but it's impossible to get used to. It sounds frightening. When I'm playing this album loud (and I always am), I feel like I need to move out of the way of something. But then, I react to a lot of stimuli in that way. I jump at shadows and irrationally fear strangers and dark places I haven't been in before. "Ghost Bitch" functions like a horror movie for me, allowing me to work through my issues with fear in a safe environment where I know I'm not really in any danger. It's not the only song on Bad Moon Rising that has this function for me. I play it louder and louder, just like I watch scarier and scarier horror movies, always pushing my limits, seeing how much I can stand before I have to stop. And then I'll try again later.

"Ghost Bitch" isn't really scary until halfway through, though. The train-coming noises are tough, as are Kim's muttered lyrics, in which she spools out ominous imagery: "Locking arms side by side, crouch down before the fire's light." But then, after the first verse, the song finally kicks all the way in, with Bob pounding on his toms and Kim yelling: "I still remember their savage cries... faces painted in joyous fright!" Thurston and Lee increase the intensity of their feedback, no longer stopping and starting the train noise but carrying it on constantly in the right speaker as the other guitar scrapes and screeches in the left. Under it all, Kim's bass rumbles, playing no intelligible notes but instead a dark bed of sound that deepens the horrific feel the song creates. "You're the first day of my life!" she screams at the end of the verse, and everything cuts out except feedback, which spirals upwards and seems like an ending until Bob Bert, who'd leave the band after this album to play a drumkit consisting mostly of pieces of metal in Pussy Galore, pounds on a piece of sheet metal and a floor tom and is echoed by strikes against guitar strings that reverberate with the metal sounds so completely that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. This outburst also trails off into spiraling feedback, which is chopped off without warning in favor of pounding toms and a background loop of church bells.

Thus begins "I'm Insane," a roundabout personal manifesto driven by repetition. Drums thud, guitars saw on staccato chords, the bassline mostly consists of one note repeated over and over (sometimes replaced by a higher octave of the same note). Atop it all, Thurston recites a poetic lyric consisting of foreboding, disconnected images. Beneath it all, the church bells, ringing at the edge of hearing, usually inaudible but always texturally present. "A steaming swamp. A troubled heart. The sky is red. I can't stop running." Thurston's lyric has a narrative quality to it, but doesn't go anyplace that you could plot out on a map. Instead, it escalates along with the music, carrying its repetition toward a climax that never quite arrives, building up and then building down, all without ever really changing. "I'm Insane" distinguishes itself from the majority of Bad Moon Rising by creating the same sort of hovering, spacious feel that is common to most of the album, but without leaving much of any space between its instruments. The mix for this song is thick, but the repetition of the song's construction opens up a different space inside the head of the listener, seeming to go on forever even as it ends after only four minutes.

If "I'm Insane" goes on forever, "Justice Is Might" never seems to start. Flowing naturally from what remains when most of the instruments in "I'm Insane" have trailed off to a stop, "Justice Is Might" builds up around a loop of feedback that works the same as the Metal Machine Music loop worked in "Society Is A Hole," although I'm pretty sure it's a loop created by Sonic Youth themselves, not one cribbed from another record. Over that loop, Thurston, speaking through distortion effects, announces the song as if he's a hardcore frontman explaining the political content of the song the band is about to play. As a veteran of the hardcore scene, I know all about these introductions, which sometimes stretch on a good bit longer than the actual songs they introduce. And sometimes they're incoherent, too, though never quite as incoherent as Thurston's translated introduction is revealed to be. "This song is called 'Justice Is Might,' it's about sonic life," he stammers out, before going on to explain that "you have a genius and a sex maniac living together taking lots of drugs and fucking all day, and it's just like... staying at home and risking your life." This introduction is the first two minutes of this four-minute track, and what follows it might just be Sonic Youth's version of a one-minute hardcore song. As Bob plays a rumbling beat on his toms, Lee and Thurston chop out what might be a two-chord riff if it originated in an insane asylum on Venus. "I know it's wrong, but that is all right," Thurston declaims. "As long as it's strong, it's just that it might." He repeats the song's title twice, and then it's over. But not really, as now we get another minute and a half of trailing feedback over which he continues to repeat the song's title through the same distortion he used to introduce it. "Justice Is Might" feels like the auditory version of watching a hardcore show through the eyes of Pablo Picasso. This is the reflection of a very unique, some might say twisted, perspective, applied to the hardcore scene. And yet it comes from Thurston Moore, who did time in the NY hardcore band Even Worse before forming Sonic Youth and has played guitar in recent reunions of Negative Approach, the member of the band who most appreciated what hardcore had to offer on its own terms, as a musical form and a culture. And yet, how can it seem weird to me, a fellow hardcore veteran who finds the whole thing both brilliant and absurd, inviting and alienating? I understand exactly what he means. In fact, the song's title is most easily understood to mean "might makes right," but because I was looking for puns and double-meanings after seeing the title "Society Is A Hole" on Bad Moon Rising's back cover, I read the word might as synonymous with "may be" for years. It seems like Thurston might intend this too, as the lyric "It's just that it might" recasts the word in the same meaning, and also thereby influences the reading of the title. Maybe it's all a reference to the way the hardcore scene carries itself as if it knows all the answers to all of society's problems, but never is able to solve the problems that exist within it.

The conclusion of this album is its climactic moment, and "Death Valley 69" stands apart from almost everything that has come before, as it forsakes the floating atmosphere of the rest of Bad Moon Rising in favor of a simple, pounding riff that separates itself from hardcore or metal only by the stop-start cadence with which Sonic Youth plays it. Instead of flowing out of the song that has come before, "Death Valley 69" follows the only stretch of silence on the whole album (other than the side division), Bob Bert kicking things off with a stick-clicking four count and the whole band slamming into the riff like they're trying to kill their guitars. "Death Valley 69"'s riff-based construction is the mirror image of the album's beginning, "Brave Men Run" opening with a solid riff just as pretty and upbeat as "Death Valley 69" is ugly and dark. The entire band works together to pound the already memorable two-chord riff into your brain so deeply that it can never be dislodged. While they do so, Thurston sings the song's frightening lyrics from the point of view of Charles Manson. "Coming down," he yells. "Sadie, I love it." The verse is followed by a careening instrumental chorus, and then even "Death Valley 69" has an ambient breakdown, on which Thurston and Lee's guitars step into the background, ringing and shaking as Kim Gordon's bass and Bob Bert's rolling toms swirl around your head, creating an atmosphere that goes beyond foreboding into full-on terror. Meanwhile, Thurston as Charlie Manson is joined by guest vocalist Lydia Lunch in the role of Manson killer Sadie Mae Glutz. They sing almost in unison, constructing a dual narrative that is constructed in a creative manner; at one point, Thurston sings "I got sand in my mouth" as Lydia sings "You got sand in your mouth." Then on the next line, Thurston sings, "You got sun in your eyes" as Lydia sings "I got sun in my eyes." But any discussion of this kind of thing avoids the song's dark heart--a matter-of-fact description of a murder committed by both Charlie and Sadie. Lydia Lunch sounds like she's taking an almost sexual pleasure in the act, while Thurston perfectly captures the vicious joy of an unrepentant killer. By the end of this long, creepy interlude, when Thurston says, "She started to holler, so I had to hit it," and Lydia is goading him on, screaming "Hit it!" over and over, the frantic terror is almost too much to bear. Just before everyone freaks out and turns the record off, the band slams back into the song's main riff, but this is not salvation, as the song's final verse is even more frightening, as Thurston repeats the song title over and over while Lydia screams incoherently. There's more fright packed into this five-minute avalanche of a song than most horror movies put into two hours. And this was the album's single! I first heard it on the radio, in fact. The college station played it in the middle of the night when I was 14 years old. It kept me awake for hours.

But really, what better way to end an album constructed entirely around alienation and existential horror than with some actual terror? "Death Valley 69" merely gives voice to sentiments that are implied but not spoken in all of the other songs on Bad Moon Rising. I'm not saying I relate to songs written from the point of view of a serial killer--in fact, it's just the opposite. I think what Sonic Youth reveal in "Death Valley 69" is the underlying fear of all alienated souls--that this world will be too much for them. That feeling like there's nowhere that you belong is something you can only deal with for so long before giving up entirely. And what happens when you give up? Do you attack society as a (w)hole through violent, antisocial acts? Or do you let the suicide holidays win? It's not a question to which there is one permanent answer. You can only answer it in terms of the day, maybe even the hour, that you are living through. And hope that the answer you come up with does indeed involve you living through it.