Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy

[Geffen; 2008]

Styles: theatrical hard rock
Others: Queen, Elton John, Motörhead, Aerosmith

The release of Guns N' Roses’ long-anticipated album, Chinese Democracy parallels in many ways the plight and legacy of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Both albums were fraught with band in-fighting, a music industry and public moving away from their respective aesthetic, business and legal skirmishes, the enlistment of a suffocating number of collaborators and players, and a single artist’s impossible struggle for perfection. In both cases, such acrimony led to years of delay, frustration, and an unrelenting rumor mill. The rumors surrounding Chinese Democracy, which began in 1994, have been circulating since the dawn of the internet age and have encompassed everything from phony progress reports to shoddy leaks of lost studio sessions.

That Chinese Democracy's existence has incubated for so long on the internet has ensured that its release (exclusively at Best Buy) will be nothing short of a pop-culture phenomenon. Evidence of this can be found in the most frequent questions surrounding the album: “Will GN’R miss Slash, Duff, Izzy, and Matt Sorum?” “Does the addition of Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck signal a veer toward industrial-metal?” “Will the purchase of the album really include a free Dr. Pepper?” -- each of these playing a part in eclipsing the most pertinent question: “Is Chinese Democracy worth the wait?”

Given the departure of nearly all of GN'R’s original personnel (save Axl) and the inclusion of new members such as Finck, Tommy Stinson (The Replacements), and experimental guitarist Buckethead, Chinese Democracy doesn’t stray too far from the cinematic hard rock that the band branded in the late 1980s. In fact, given the time it has taken to create, it’s surprising how similar it is to the Use Your Illusion volumes. Chinese Democracy, just like its two-decade old predecessors, features stately, major-chord guitar operettas that utilize hovering orchestral and keyboard arrangements, blistering rockers, Elton John-inspired piano ballads, and elements of soul and R&B. Perhaps the band’s most recognizable instrument, Axl’s voice, is also on full display, bouncing between his piercing holler and low-throated rap. The guitars are omnipresent and razor-sharp, punctuating every tempo change and obscuring the stray instrumentation that has wrapped its way into the mix. The culmination of these sounds leads us to the prevailing notion that, despite years of studio tinkering, this music ultimately begs to be played in the arena.

Not to condone the sheer length of time it took to bring Chinese Democracy to fruition, but clearly its creation was a massive endeavor. Every song features layers of adornment -- programmed beats mingling with live drums, flourishes of electronica, strings swelling at the bridges of many of the songs. While often ill-advised and unnecessary, these touches reveal a painstaking creative process years in the making. Much of the lyrics too are consumed with such hardship. In the album-defining centerpiece, “Madagascar,” Rose describes the isolating existence of an artist: “I won't be told anymore/ That I've been brought down in this storm/ And left so far out from the shore/ That I can't find my way back.” In “Catcher in the Rye” he likens himself to Holden Caufield -- alone in a world that misunderstands him -- while “Street of Dreams” finds him a wanderer.

While still possessing a flair for the melodramatic (the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” sample in “Madagascar” is the most over-reaching), Chinese Democracy features a more mature and vulnerable Axl Rose. That is, there’s nothing as overtly confrontational as the brash, tuck-a-pistol-in-your-jeans and tie-on-a-bandana “Get in the Ring,” nor is there the weepy showmanship of “November Rain.” Instead, Rose walks alongside the circumstances of our world and his life -- religious persecution, terrorism, love gone wrong, creative woe -- as a pensive observer, considering his reactions and, in the most extreme cases, praying for them.

This leads us back to the central question: Is Chinese Democracy worth the wait? Ultimately, the answer is wholly dependent on the listener: Possessing the same sophistication that set them above the hair-pop-rock genre that spawned them and the proto-metal that sustained them, Guns N' Roses have once again composed an album that will charm patient fans and interest casual observers. But while the album can aptly be termed “good,” it isn’t the epic that many might expect, especially to those whose interests have long since shifted away from GN'R's aesthetic and the younger generation unable to emotionally connect with the sounds. But maybe Chinese Democracy isn't designed to have a clear answer. In “Street of Dreams,” Rose sings, “So now I wander through my days/ Trying to find my ways/ To the feelings that I felt/ I saved for you and no one else,” signaling perhaps that he at last understands the essence of unattainable perfection, be it in world politics, a relationship, or a record 15 years in the making.

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