Guns N’ Roses
2.5 out of 5 Stars
Chinese Democracy is the most disappointing album of the year. After 14 years, Axl Rose’s supposed magnum opus was going to finally escape the purgatory of seedy recording studios so I could savagely pan it. I wanted so badly to pour every last ounce of vitriol I could summon from my own human fabric into a merciless review of the valueless disc. I wanted to tackle Chinese Democracy to the floor and kick it while it was down. And then spit on it.
Tragically, now that Chinese Democracy has arrived, it isn’t actually awful enough to merit that treatment. With the album, Axl Rose — being the snake he is — even manages to slither out of the grasp of my criticism, up to the realm of painful mediocrity.
It’s not that I despise Guns N’ Roses. I’m undeniably drawn to their more melodic fare like “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Patience” and perhaps a few minutes of “November Rain.” And their legendary belligerent antics were more or less the inspiration for the language of my first paragraph.
Admittedly, the majority of GN’R’s hyper-masculine swill isn’t appealing. But mostly, Axl is just annoying. He’s a textbook prima donna and a problem child both on and off the stage. He also treats his fans like shit, no-showing at many gigs and delaying others for hours. And let none of this trivialize his ugliest character flaws: racial bigotry and homophobia.
I wanted Axl to fail. And he even failed me there.
When production started on Chinese Democracy in 1993, the album was probably a conscious attempt to further the artistic trajectory of a stagnating Guns N’ Roses. And had it been released before the end on the millennium, it probably would’ve accomplished that goal. But after taking its cues from late-’90s TRL mainstays Limp Bizkit and Korn, and being further delayed for yet another decade, Democracy is totally irrelevant to modern music. Worse, it doesn’t even recall the glory days of GN’R. It’s a snapshot of an era of Guns N’ Roses that nobody ever knew. It probably should’ve remained hidden.
Opening with the grating, hookless nu-metal of a title-track “Chinese Democracy,” the album seems poised to live up to both the sub-bootleg quality of its lifeless cover art and the broken reputation of its creator. The track predicts no potential resurgence in its overwrought sound, but as it screams to a close with embarrassing digital distortion, it gives way to an unthinkable, yet modest resurrection.
“Rock Band 2” premiered “Shackler’s Revenge,” a grossly overproduced track featuring demonic chant vocals that seems destined for the same fate at its predecessor. But when the chorus breaks in, a melody in the same semi-metal vein that defined classic-era GN’R manages to escape the shackles of overly virtuosic guitar leads and awkward rhythmic stops to carry the song to unlikely success.
And for much of the first half of Democracy, that’s the status quo; otherwise flawed (even greatly flawed) songs survive simply because of Axl’s apparently intact melodic sensibilities. “Better,” for instance, reeks of late-’90s studio technique and crumbles in its abrasive refrains, yet it still floats with the help of Rose’s up-and-down verse vocals.
A few bars of ivory quite reminiscent of the “November Rain” interlude usher in “Street of Dreams,” but a distinct piano figure isn’t all the new track shares with the epic 1991 hit. With a string accompaniment, soaring guitar solo and impassioned vocals, it’s a pocket “November Rain” that politely clocks in under five minutes. A vintage ’80s monster ballad done right, it contends only with the exasperating, neo-power pop “Catcher in the Rye” for the honor of best song on the extremely average album.
Predictably, Axl’s sea of tunes proves pretty shallow, and the closing half of the disc is a cesspool of unorganized leftovers. The back-to-back atonal twins “Scraped” and “Riad n’ the Bedouins,” are a particularly painful pairing, and the enraged breakup vengeance plea “I.R.S.” (“Gonna call the President / Gonna call a private eye / Gonna get the IRS / Gonna need the FBI”) is an unintentional, yet biting, self-parody.
Basically, that’s what Axl and his multi-million dollar teenage baby amount to: self parody. Unless he’s engaging in some heady meta-art in which he’s portraying his audience, then the prophetic words of “Scraped” (“The world is on top of / breaking me down with / an endless monotony”) are nothing more than delicious irony embodying all the record’s failings.
Somehow, Axl has conjured enough of his magic touch to rescue Chinese Democracy and deliver it to a status of utter mediocrity. And that’s an accomplishment. But above all, Axl’s an entertainer. And it would’ve been much more entertaining for everyone had the album been a legendary flop.