Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy

Evan Sawdey
Photo: George Chin

No album, ever, is worth a 17-year wait. With that said, though, Chinese Democracy at least tries to match the impossibly lofty expectations it has going for it.

Guns N' Roses

Chinese Democracy

Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 2008-11-23
UK Release Date: 2008-11-24
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

-- "Chinese Democracy"

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

-- "Shackler's Revenge"

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?


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.