Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the company of William Shatner, Chinese Democracy will likely be one of the most ridiculous audio recordings you ever come across. It is sprawling and stupid and ludicrous and hilarious and will make you shoot milk out of your nose and cringe and it is not very good and sometimes extremely terrible, and just when you think things cannot possibly get any more extraordinarily strange, that’s when Axl Rose drops the MLK sample on you.
Originally slated for release in 1948, Chinese Democracy comes out Sunday exclusively for people shopping for Black Friday-sale plasmas at Best Buy, a wise promotional stunt and kind of an all-in proposition — if putting this record out this week doesn’t create interest or move units, nothing will. Because one thing is sure: the songs won’t sell it.
The final, finished, ostensibly archival version of Chinese Democracy is a fucking mess, a haphazard, stop-and-go Transformer of rap-metal parts, ideas, sketches, Chester Bennington riffs, lyrical crimes, la la las, and ridiculous electronic touches and twists that only occasionally resemble completed songs; in what will be the least surprising thing you’ll read all week, it sounds like what happens when you dicker around with something so long it stops making any sort of cohesive sense. Tracks like “I.R.S.” and the absurd “Riad n’ the Bedouins” barely begin accelerating before they veer into left-field guitar solos, tempo shifts, distracting vocal tricks, and Axl’s never-far-afield need to drop in something robotic. These songs build no momentum, create no wave. It’s more like Axl’s “A Day in the Life”; you feel like he cut up the tape, threw it into the air, and sticky-taped together the results.
There is some good news: Chinese Democracy is front-loaded with its best stuff. The title track is a long-percolating old-time stomp; sure, it starts basically exactly like “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and features 27 vocal tracks, but it’ll make you drive quickly. Same goes for the Rock Band 2-headed “Shackler’s Revenge,” one of a few tracks here that skillfully welds Axl’s synthetic ambitions to a couple moments of old-school, howl-at-the-moon rock ‘n’ roll. And the second single, “Better,” which has gone through more incarnations than Journey over the past seven or eight years, offers glimpses of the old, albeit midtempo GNR, before falling to pieces via an extended conclusion that goes on forever and includes a “na na na” part now.
After that, it’s Katie bar the door. “Street of Dreams,” which has never been a Springsteen title for some reason, is the first of what feels like 30 monster ballads that find Axl once again stealing Elton John’s piano for a walk down cliche road. “If the World” coughs to a start with fart sound effects and a mariachi guitar, and gets worse from there, mostly because of the constant swirl of important-sounding strings. “Sorry” has Axl ripping off Pink Floyd, reviving some of his unmissed old misogyny, and sounding like Borat for a minute. “I.R.S.” and “Riad” are jittery and ADHD and indulgent. Two songs — “Sorry” and “There Was a Time” — contain whispered or growled buried-in-the-mix mystery vocals you might expect listening to Avril Lavigne.
Possibly the biggest disappointment is “Madagascar,” another overmarinated power ballad (it hails from at least 2002, when Axl and Buckethead and God-knows-who-else brought it to an anticlimactic performance at the VMAs) that gets off to a solid start before exploding into a cacophony of samples that includes MLK and, surprisingly, the “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” business from “Civil War,” which, if you’re anything like me, will make you a little sad with nostalgia.
Chinese, when all is said and done, can be broken down into the following lessons:
1. Unchecked, Axl Rose is evidently controlled entirely by his egotastic ambitions. Even on the outsized Illusion discs, Izzy Stradlin was there to keep Cornrows in check. Unleashed and given a blank check, there’s no focus in there.
2. I have no idea how many people it takes to replace Slash, but it’s at least four. Guitar solos here — many of which are pretty great — could have been furnished by anyone from Buckethead to Bumblefoot to Robin Finck to Brian May, and they all sound like the old guy.
3. And for 14 years of work, Axl doesn’t sound any more comfortable twiddling around with his new electronic toys than Sammy Hagar does on his latest record. As a myth, as a legend, as a $13 million unreleased record, Chinese Democracy was a story, a mystery with a misanthrope whose oddness promised some sort of payoff. Once on the Best Buy shelves Sunday, it will very likely go down as one of music’s most lively deflations, something on the order of that last Who record, or the new Queen, or Bridges to Babylon. Some things are better left unreleased.