There is something awful and bloated about “November Rain,” from the piano flourish in its first few seconds to the overcooked chorus of voices at the eight-minute coda of this synthed-up, heavily orchestrated power ballad. But I won’t stop listening, and I won’t stop loving it.
By the time the song was released in early 1992, Nirvana and their grunge brethren had already rendered the excesses of this kind of centerpiece track–which might have been a Reagan/Bush era “Hey Jude” had it been released in 1987–obsolete. Following a grand tradition of sensitive, piano-based numbers put forth by hard rock bands (”Dream On,” “Eternal Flame,” “Freebird,” to name just a few), “November Rain” articulates its elongated structure on well-established power ballad principles: the slow burn, the build, and the release (followed sometimes by a vamp or coda or heavy jam). Rather than stagnate under that formula, however, Guns N’ Roses transcends the conventions of the power-ballad through the band’s unwavering belief in their musical vision. This is the genius of “November Rain” as a song, and Guns N’ Roses as a group of musicians–as cliche a position the band is playing from, not one of the band members will let down the sonic and thematic expression of this piece of music. Not Axl Rose, with his weary, blown-out vocals taking stock; not Matt Sorum, locking everything down in slow but powerful accompaniment to Duff’s melodic bass; and certainly not lead guitarist Slash, who elevates “November Rain” from a tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Foreigner record to the second coming of Clapton.
In three awe-inspiring solos, Slash wholly rejects the out-of-it, top-hatted, hair-in-face, shades-wearing, Svengoolie-looking cartoon character that was his brand since the mid-Eighties, based upon his commitment to his singular look and affect. The garage-rock element had always been the best of Guns N’ Roses, but that raw axe interplay between Izzy and Slash here is absent. And Slash, lacking the traditional restraints of rock and roll, transcends both song and genre, propelled by technical virtuosity and, most importantly, his unmitigated belief in the song written by his lead singer. There is no irony in his playing, as you might find in solos by other guitar wizards (Jeff Beck a good example). Likewise, there are no references to other solos, there are no jazz licks, or busy fills from the workshop. Each of the three guitar solos is pure melodic invention in perfect complement with the song itself. Slash believes.
It is Slash’s guitar work, not the portentousness of the song’s lyrics, not the orchestration or the production factors, that elevate “November Rain” from power ballad to minor masterpiece. “November Rain” captures, for a moment, a message of pure love from Slash to his band, akin to Keith Richard picking out the opening notes to “Gimme Shelter.”
No, they don’t make them like they used to, and for good reason. After “November Rain,” the power-ballad took on an uglier, more sloggy manifestation, as presented by bands like Nickelback and Staind. But for eight or so minutes in 1992, Guns N’ Roses made love to the power ballad in all of its drama and instrumental superfluity.