It’s the curse of the debut album: the artist, unsure of who he/she is or what he/she ought to sound like strikes out in all directions — a power ballad here, a blues grinder there, a piano pop-tune way over yonder. The artist can be forgiven for their somewhat schizoid aim since the label has put all the weight of the company, as well as one’s own career path, down on their freshman shoulders. With that in mind, W. Axl Rose is the oldest freshman in the history of music, as his magnum opus Chinese Democracy has finally seen the light of day. The good news is that it isn’t the unmitigated failure we expected, yet it is far from the triumphant return from exodus his handlers would like you to believe.
It is the equivalent of time travel wrapped in aluminum, or vinyl if you so desire, as songs that gestated through the 15-year span in between it and the previous covers album The Spaghetti Incident? (1993) have not been updated to any semblance of modernity. Rose’s flirtation with industrial rock in the early nineties, plainly NIN-fluenced, are left intact and instantly dated as are the tracks that are NU-fluenced. Korn should be proud to hear the presence of down-tuning, hip-hop loop beats and scream chants on a GNR album, but even Linkin Park jumped that train and caught a taxi to emo-town. I suppose we dodged a Rose-colored, mascaraed bullet on that.
But there are a couple songs that I didn’t mind listening to. In fact, if “Better” came on the radio, I might not turn the dial. It has a semblance of the old attitude the band once had, and not too much of the stylistic shout-outs that bog down the rest of the album. “Shackler’s Revenge” survives a disheartening opening to reveal itself as one of the stronger tracks, and because I do have a soft spot for proggish bombast and consider “November Rain” my favorite GNR tune, “There Was A Time” survives the time trials. But where I finished Metallica’s Death Magnetic and thought, “I’ll still listen to Justice and the black album more, but I’ll revisit this occasionally too,” I can only bring myself to clicking off my favorites in Chinese Democracy‘s jumble and dumping them into a hard-rock mixtape. The rest of the album is skip-fodder and, considering the majority of my music listening happens in my car, I’d rather play a different CD and keep my eyes on the road.
What the hard copy of Chinese Democracy truly lacks is the mythology that surrounded it. That’s what kept it sought after, what gave it interest, what ultimately turned it into a punchline for a very long joke. As ever, people want most what they get the least or not at all. The fabled ‘lost record’ has always been, for as long as pop music has been, and has by-and-large always produced less than revelatory results. From Prince’s “black album” to Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams, once the reality comes to fruition, be it in a legitimate form or a prized bootleg version, a lot of the luster immediately vanishes. As much as I like Brian Wilson’s Smile, it is not the album the Beach Boys could have made in the late ’60s even if it was a note-for-note shot at that glory. Smile became iconic because of “Good Vibrations,” mostly. We wanted, needed to know what the rest of the story was, and the wanting informed the legend.
Now that Rose has finally relinquished the item, it can be said the legend is less than the sum of its pointedly backward-looking chapters. We gain closure but lose the spark generated by the wait and, in that, having Chinese Democracy out is even more disappointing than had it arrived more than a decade earlier.