[23 November 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
It was a long time for you / It was a long time for me / It’d be a long time for anyone / But looks like it was meant to be
—“There Was a Time”
Whatever you do, don’t think about today.
Today isn’t the point. This week isn’t the point. Hell, even all of 2008 is moot in this argument. Yes, Chinese Democracy exists—you may very well be holding that long-delayed Guns N’ Roses album in your hands as you read this. By now, we have all read the surprisingly positive reviews, streamed the disc on the band’s MySpace page, and perhaps have already made up our minds about it, regardless of whether we’ve heard a single note of it or not. Faithful Guns N’ Roses fans will have much to gush over, cynics will have much to gripe about, but, in the end, there is only one question that truly needs to be asked ...
Ten years from now, what will Chinese Democracy be remembered for: its actual content or simply the fact that it got released?
For some, the answer will invariably be the latter. After all, the body count for this album is simply too high to ignore, and the negative effects of Axl Rose’s megalomania has forever altered the epic myth that is Guns N’ Roses. We’ve seen Axl fire all of his original band members. We’ve seen him try and sever his ex-bandmates’ royalty checks. We’ve watched him send a cease-and-desist letter to the Offspring when they tried to steal the Chinese Democracy album title away from him. We’ve seen Axl cancel a Chinese Democracy tour in 2002 halfway through its run, following hour-plus periods of tardiness and even causing riots at some venues. We’ve even seen Guns N’ Roses fan sites shut down in protest of Axl’s continually empty post-millennial promises regarding Democracy‘s release. There are some who will outright refuse to support this album in any way, shape, or form—and it’s nearly impossible to blame them for sticking to that belief. In the end, no matter what way you slice it, no album—ever—is going to be worth a 17-year wait.
Yet when that first monstrous, ironclad guitar riff bursts out from the speakers with Axl’s throaty howl slowly escalating in intensity, a glimmer of hope appears. The song “Chinese Democracy” emerges from the haze, all gut-punch guitar riffs and insane guitar solos, Axl’s defiant middle finger to those who wrote him off years (if not decades) ago. As a Guns N’ Roses album, it breaks all sorts of new ground. However, as a hard rock disc appearing at the tail end of 2008, it merely steals all of the best parts from the decade-plus gap that exits between the release of 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? and now. There’s the Tom Morello-like pedal distortion in the title track, the very Marilyn Manson-inspired opening riff to “Shackler’s Revenge”, and the swiped hip-hop beats of “If the World” and “IRS”. Yet even with the overindulgence that plagued the worst moments of the Use Your Illusion albums, it’s often easy to overlook Axl’s greatest strength as a songwriter: he’s a master of synthesis, able to steal/borrow/rip-off seemingly unrelated styles and somehow make them work within the context of a single song. Love him or hate him, Chinese Democracy shows off this gift in spades.
It don’t really matter
I guess you’ll find out for yourself
No, it don’t really matter
So you can’t hear it now from somebody else
In listening to Chinese Democracy, the list of genres that Axl steals ideas from (whether consciously or unknowingly) is endless. The string-laden epic “If the World” mixes sullen string sections with boisterous beats, coming off as E.S. Posthumus trying to cover Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and not entirely failing in the process. All while the penultimate ballad “This I Love” showcases Rose creating his own Phantom of the Opera moment, a lonely piano figure that’s filled with yearning, self-pity, and unrequited passion. Even 2006’s Harley-Davidson teaser-single “Better” could’ve been a hit for Audioslave in some (lamentable) alternate universe.
Yet even with Axl’s “anything goes” mentality (the pop-leaning “Street of Dreams” might as well be called “December Rain”), this is still a Guns N’ Roses album through and through. It’s impossible to mistake the speed-riffing of “Scraped” for the work of any other band. In fact, when the wild, circular axe-solos come flying during the closing moments of “Shackler’s Revenge”, it almost feels like the original Guns N’ Roses are back and in full force, Slash riding his guitar into the atmosphere and never once looking back. All of this is terribly ironic given how Slash is nowhere to be heard on this album, lead guitarists Bumblefoot and Robin Finck instead pull off remarkably credible imitations of the eternally top-hatted one in his absence.
Unfortunately, those Slash sound-alike moments are just that: imitations. As strong as Chinese Democracy‘s best moments are (especially in the first half), a majority of this album is, really, just another Guns N’ Roses record, despite the years of hype leading us to believe it would be some sort of hard-rock masterpiece. There are times when it feels as if Axl is falling back on some of the same old tropes that powered him through the late ‘80s/early ‘90s post-hair metal slog. “I.R.S.” is a competent rocker by all means—sounding like it can be placed on either Use Your Illusion with relative ease—but in 2008, it simply sounds tired and rehashed, a “standard” GN’R song, if you will. “Madagascar”, powered by its brass-heavy orchestral accompaniment, feels burdened by its own self-importance (the multitude of Martin Luther King Jr. sound clips in the middle certainly doesn’t help his case). The boneheaded “Riad N’ the Bedouins”, meanwhile tries desperately to be an even harder-rocking cousin to “Welcome to the Jungle”, but its disjointed chorus leaves it sounding more confused than angry, rendering the song as more of a self-parody than anything else (which wouldn’t be as laughable were it not for the fact that Axl takes himself so seriously, leaving absolutely no room for even a sliver of irony to slip in).
Don’t ever try to tell me
How much you care for me
Don’t ever try to tell me
How you are there for me
It is here that we get to the main problem with Democracy: it’s just too damn long. With six of its 14 tracks stretching past the five-minute mark, the album’s latter half simply drags along, especially for those who aren’t as willing to indulge Axl’s Top 40 fantasias (hello there, “Catcher in the Rye”). By frontloading the album with the hardest, strongest, and most memorable songs, Axl succeeds in bucking the lowered expectations that anyone might have coming into it. Unfortunately, this leaves the rest of the record at a disadvantage, as Democracy‘s second half is filled with songs that are certainly good but far from great—which means that none of the last seven tracks comes even close to matching the opening hat-trick of “Chinese Democracy”, “Shackler’s Revenge”, and “Better”. Furthermore, by ending an album of this magnitude with the bland grandstanding of “Prostitute”, the chance for this disc to make a definitive statement or even a worthy closing argument is, regrettably, lost.
Lyrically, Axl still howls about loneliness, isolation, defiance, and (of course) how nobody understands him, ultimately never saying much but thankfully shying away from his outright lyrical blunders of the past (see: “One in a Million” from 1989’s G N’ R Lies). Chinese Democracy is, and always has been, about the music, which explains why there’s enough studio sheen here to kill a horse. Yet, amazingly, even the worst songs avoid feeling overlabored: each track still cackles with energy, the whole disc displaying a defiant pomposity that is sorely missing from the Modern Rock charts today. Even when Axl blunders and fails, he at least does so in a spectacular fashion, never once second-guessing his motives or intentions. Axl will fail on his own terms, and even in the face of staunch criticism, he probably won’t view himself (or this disc) as anything less than perfect. At one point, he even seems to acknowledge his detractors, dismissing them simply by saying:
I don’t give a fuck ‘bout them
‘cos I. Am. Cra-zy.
—“Riad N’ the Bedouins”
In the end, we will all go through the same steps in listening to Chinese Democracy. There’s that initial wow-factor that hits during the first few tracks, the strange realization that these songs are, in fact, surprisingly sturdy, and—of course—there’s that moment when you realize that the joke that was Chinese Democracy is, surprisingly, without a punch line. Yet even if it defies expectations, Chinese Democracy is not the masterpiece that it so desperately wants to be. Songs that are “surprisingly sturdy” do not make them classics, just as how we do not hand out gold medals for breaking personal records in a race where someone still places fifth.
In short, ten years from now, what will Chinese Democracy be remembered for: its actual content or simply the fact that it got released? Let’s put it this way: when you’re standing in front of that drinking hole jukebox a decade from now and you’re deciding whether to spend your last quarter on Appetite for Destruction‘s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or Democracy‘s “Madagascar”, which one are you inevitably going to choose?