Listening Booth: Guns n’ Roses, “Chinese Democracy” — A Second Opinion

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.

  • Ted

    As one commentator wrote about this album: this marks the end of an era; an era when spoiled rock stars can spend tons of money and time recording an album, but the final product is, ultimately, a disappointment.

    But hey, at least you got a few songs to put on a mix CD.

  • DwDunphy

    Commentator Schmommentator. So long as the human ego remains unchecked and the wallet gets refilled (and a desperate record company is a willing enabler) there will be big, glorious flops… Only now, they'll reside more in the hip hop realm than the rock realm.

  • Ted

    Given the shelf life of most rap albums, do you really think record companies are going to “invest” in such a costly endeavor when the a good chunk of the rap fan base has very little brand loyalty. I suppose it's possible with Jay-Z, Diddy, and Kanye all vying for best rapper in the history of the world, but would rap fans wait 10+ years for a new album? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • DwDunphy

    They already are… Not necessarily in the recording itself, but the care and feeding of a hip hop star is very expensive. I believe we'd be shocked by the money that is changing hands, and for what? There was a lot of expectation for Jay-Z's American Gangster and, while not a flop, it certainly wasn't the cash cow the label was holding out for.

    You are right about the fast and furious turnover in the rap music scene. Axl had it lucky that he could maintain a fanbase for seventeen fruitless years. In rap, if you aren't in the spotlight for a month or two, you might as well quit. By the time you return, you've already been labeled a has-been.

    The only genre that I know of where a fan is a fan until either they or the star dies is country. No wonder Jessica Simpson and Bon Jovi tried to crack in.

  • rwcass

    In the area of R&B, it'll be interesting to see which fans are still around when D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell finally release their next albums.

  • mojo

    The Black album was phenomenal in crummy bootleg vinyl, and fully flowered beautiful when it finally saw that limited commercial release. I am a prince nut–well, up to and including Emancipation and a few songs since–so I guess that factors in.

    Lumping Black Album with Chinese Democracy makes me shed a purple tear on my shirt ruffle.

  • DwDunphy

    And in the area of pop, who's waiting for the christ-like second comings of Ryan Cabrera and Howie Day?

    Who, I ask you? And what are their addresses? They need to be stopped!!

  • DwDunphy

    Sorry, Mojo-man. Even though I have recently gained newfound respect for the Purple One's music, The Black Album was mythical at one time. After that, it was yet another Prince album, limited release as it was. There's something to be said about keeping secrets and that material could have trickled out over the years, not depriving the fans but, at the same time, holding up the allure of “the thing you cannot have”.

  • mojo

    Oh, I am an apologist no doubt! Part of it was that I paid, like $35 for a poor poor bootleg vinyl copy…and 21 years later am still justifying spending that kind of cake for it…then saw him on the lovesexy tour, which he did several Black Album songs live, like “Bob George.” So I have an affinity for the songs beyond the bootleg…those tunes were NASSTY compared to lovesexy and he did not back down off them live. Plus, Sign O/Black Album/Lovesexy, even Batman I adore. And then the album Come, which wasn't really “in chronological order” with his Symbol man stuff at the time…was fantastic.

    SOunds like a blog post point-counterpoint or something we should take up at another time.

    A lot of Prince fans I know think Black ALbum and Come stink. The one record I can't stand from that period was the record…whatever it is you call it…that was just his symbol for the title. I love “Sexy MF” and “My Name is Prince…” but the rest of the record…phew! A lot of Prince fans adore that whole album, with Kirsty Alley and all that stuff going on…

  • DwDunphy

    Did that have “Gett Off” on it?

  • mojo

    no that was diamonds and pearls, another good if not great album. I also like Chaos & Disorder, another obscure make good to Warners that a lot of prince freaks hate because it's harder, edgier rock. After that , I haven't been real psyched for prince save the few streaks of pure genius he still flashes such as the song “Musicology,” which flattens me with it's wicked beat every time.

  • emo

    Guns n’ Roses – my band of the life :)