Album Review: “Chinese Democracy” by Guns ‘N Roses

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Another one of my old favorites from my Livejournal blog. If I could add anything, it would be that the album does NOT get better with age.

I have no idea if Axl Rose is a Star Wars fan.

On the one hand, I would doubt it. After all, Axl doesn’t strike me as the kind of sci-fi nerd that would wait in line for tickets and dress up like Obi-Wan Kenobi at Comic-Con.

On the other hand, the galactic soap opera that is Star Wars could very well have served as an inspiration for some of Guns N’ Roses’ high-concept and utterly confusing videos from their heyday in the early 90’s. “Don’t Cry” showed Axl’s domestic trauma and battle against his inner demons, kind of like Anakin Skywalker’s struggle with the Dark Side and his dysfunctional relationship with his son. “November Rain” showed Axl at his happiest, only to lose everything at the end, kind of like how Anakin seemingly lost everything as he made his transformation into Darth Vader. “Estranged,” uh, showed Axl playing with dolphins. I don’t have a Star Wars parallel for that one. Maybe the Ewoks? Maybe whatever Jar Jar Binks was supposed to be?

Why do I bring up Star Wars? Because, like Chinese Democracy, the Star Wars prequel trilogy took decades to develop and produce, cost untold millions, and generated such ridiculously high expectations upon its release that there was no way the final product could ever live up to the hype. With Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose has finally released his Star Wars prequel trilogy. It only took 14 years, an estimated $13 million (as of 2005), and more band members than we can count (including two separate tenures by guitarist Robin Finck, whose contract expired twice before the album was even close to seeing the light of day).

Axl Rose’s reputation as a perfectionist was already legendary even before he started recording this album. With the never-ending Chinese Democracy sessions, however, he turned into a taskmaster of mythical proportions as reports of frequent rewriting, re-recording, and firing and re-hiring of band members and producers became known to the public. Indeed, after Buckethead quit in 2004, Rose claimed that he would have to re-record all of the departed guitarist’s parts with the newly hired and similarly one-named guitarist, Bumblefoot (if Bumblefoot doesn’t work out, maybe they can convince The Edge to leave U2 and drop the “The” from his name so they can continue with the one-named guitarist dynamic), only to backtrack and decide to keep some of Buckethead’s parts after all. Ultimately, not only is Buckethead still on the album, but so are former members Finck, rhythm guitarist Paul Tobias (the man who was widely blamed for driving both Duff McKagan and Slash away), and ex-drummers Brian Mantia and Josh Freese. They join a cavalcade of accomplished retreads such as bassist Tommy Stinson (The Replacements), guitarist Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love), drummer Frank Ferrer (The Psychedelic Furs) and keyboardist Chris Pittman (Tool). In fact, it seems as if the only people who did not play on the album are Slash, Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin, Steven Adler, Gilby Clarke, and Matt Sorum.

So, after all the notoriety, the money, the publicity, and the hype, does Chinese Democracy even come close to living up to it? Actually, yes. If you listen to the album in a vacuum, you’ll find that it’s actually quite a good record. Of course, given everything we know about the album, we know that’s impossible to do. Still, it’s a good record that improves with each listen. Was it worth all that money, time, and drama? Only time will tell.

As for the record itself, there are certainly moments of brilliance. While reports of Axl Rose’s fascination with industrial metal were fairly accurate (epitomized by the 1999 single “Oh My God” from the “End of Days” soundtrack), much of the album is a continuation of the Queen-like epics that characterized the Use Your Illusion era. Sure, songs like “Shackler’s Revenge,” “Better,” and the title track are Nine Inch Nails-type rockers that are more aggressive and abrasive than anything they’ve ever done before. However, most of the album falls into the Illusion school of thought, with a few straightforward rockers thrown in that harken back to the old days. In fact, the album serves as a good synthesis of the Appetite Era and the Illusion Era, and if you didn’t know any better, you would think that it was still the classic lineup performing on most of the album. “Street of Dreams” (which the band has been performing for years as “The Blues”) sounds like it might have been written during the Illusion sessions, and the guitar solo sounds like vintage Slash. “Catcher in the Rye” and “Madagascar” are both piano driven ballads that recall “November Rain,” while “There Was a Time” and “Prostitute” are orchestral-driven pieces that recall, well, “November Rain.” The bizarre “Sorry,” in which Axl uses several different vocal inflections and accents, recalls similar strange recordings in the band’s past, like “My World,” “One in a Million,” or that Charles Manson song.

Due to the expansiveness of the recording process, Axl Rose does not reference timely events in American (or Chinese) culture, nor does he use the album as some kind of platform for political change. The title Chinese Democracy really serves as nothing more than a title, as he rarely refers to China and even less to democracy. The title track makes a few passing references to the Falun Gong, but says nothing about Tienanmen Square, tensions with Taiwan, SARS, reclaiming Hong Kong, the growing concentration of wealth as China moves to capitalism, Jet Li, Yao Ming, or the 2008 Olympics. I guess it’s understandable. After all, when he first started writing for the album, Bill Clinton was in his first term, Republicans had just captured both houses of Congress in an historic electoral landslide, the World Trade Center had been attacked but was still standing, O.J.’s murder trial hadn’t started yet, and Kurt Cobain had recently committed suicide. Suffice it to say that the world has changed a bit since then.

Indeed, most of the album is addressed to a generic “you.” Who this “you” is varies depending on the song, but it seems like it could be any number of people. “Don’t ever try to tell me how much you care for me/Don’t ever try to tell me how you were there for me” from “Shackler’s Revenge” sounds like an attack on former bandmates. “Ask yourself/What I would do to prostitute myself/To live with fortune and shame” sounds like it could directed at his former record label. “You stole my heart I should have known you’re crazy” from “Better” sounds like it could be directed at any number of former paramours, ranging from Erin Everly to Stephanie Seymour. And, to show that Axl isn’t just some bitter ex-boyfriend, he laments on “If the World” that “You’re the only one I have ever loved that has ever loved me and now you’ve got the best of me.”

And, of course, there’s the most important “you” of all: the fans. The title track’s opening line (which serves as the opener for the album) sums it up best: “It don’t really matter/You’re gonna find out for yourself.” Given the extraordinary circumstances of the recording process, it’s almost impossible to approach this album with an open mind. Hardcore fans will love it no matter what. People still upset about the departures of Slash and Co. will probably hate it before they put it in their CD player (or listen to it online, or steal it from a torrent site). Ultimately, this album will be many different things to many different people. Axl seems to be okay with that and has done his part by delivering an album that he’s happy with. It may not be the greatest album of all time. It may not even be the greatest Guns N’ Roses album of all time. But it’s a damn good record, and one that has made Axl Rose relevant once again.

Now if he would only reunite with Slash, Duff, Matt (or Steven Adler – depending on whether he’s off drugs or not), and Izzy. I hear Velvet Revolver is looking for a lead singer…

And hey, it could be worse. Axl could have ended up like this guy:

Grade: B