Was Chinese Democracy worth the wait? When we got our hands on a bunch of damn-near finished songs in June, we said it was. And we had always suspected it was going to be, for years leading up to that moment, as rumors and rough demos trickled out of whatever mansion / studio / nudie bar Axl Rose was holed up in.
After all this time, all fans east of psychotic had the common sense to at least suspect that the big secret had been built up too much, that if and when the moment of truth finally came, it would likely be an anticlimax. Of course, the most amazing thing about this album is that it’s in our hands. At this point, what it sounds like barely matters- especially since that cat has long been out of the bag, more or less.
By the time I finally got my hands on Chinese Democracy, there was only one song that I hadn’t heard one way or another; This I Love. And it’s easily the most skippable track on the album. Which is a nice way of saying it’s a shit sandwich. It’s so bad that I need to remove it from the scope of this review; From here on out I’m just going to pretend it isn’t there, like I’ve been doing with the new Indiana Jones movie since seeing the first trailer.
The other thing we need to at least try to put aside is the hype. It’s impossible to separate the album from the legend, but let’s try. Let’s imagine that instead of the band splintering over Axl’s egomaniacal shenanigans, Slash died in a plane crash (or got thrown in jail for life for stealing or something), and an emotionally devastated Axl went into seclusion and he stayed there. Didn’t speak a word, didn’t take any rough copies of his decade-plus-in-the-making album to strip clubs. Let’s assume for a moment, that we all just forgot about Axl Rose. Let’s imagine a world where the Wikipedia entry for Chinese Democracy discusses a political movement.
Then, suddenly, Guns N’ Roses’ infamous frontman releases a new album. And it’s these fourteen thirteen new songs.
Then it’s a pretty damn good album. Some of these songs are of classic caliber: Better for sure- which should have been the lead-off single, no question. If The World, which sounds like a cousin of Album Of The Year era Faith No More; every bit as fervent and timeless. There Was A Time, which sounds like the first single from Use Your Illusion III. The epic, unweildy penultimate (as far as I’m concerned) track Madagascar actually manages to be as good as the outrageous production seems to want to deserve. And of course, there’s my lawyer’s favorite track, IRS. All of these tracks are thoroughly good, and will surely withstand the test of time. I’ll still be rocking these songs when the next Guns N’ Roses album hits shelves. Even if it takes another seventeen years.
Of the remaining not quite classics, most are still light years ahead of any of the hit singles by the top 40 rock and roll bands on the scene today. Hinder’s never going to fucking ever come close to penning anything as good as even the least perfect track, Catcher In The Rye. No Nickelback power ballad will ever be as good as Prostitute.
I got a call Friday night from an old “industry” contact that has been following the legal dogfight I’ve been engaged in since that day in June. He asked me for my “prediction.” I laughed, told him that all that shit was for the squares & geezers to bicker over, that I’ll never be one of those corporate cocksuckers that care more about the SoundScan sheets than the music on the albums on them. I remember watching first week interns studying those fucking numbers as their souls escaped through their noses. I busted his balls for a bit, but then put it aside and approached his question seriously. I said it would do better than AC/DC’s Black Ice– which would be huge in today’s market- and probably better than Kanye, because 808s & Heartbreak is likely to be, at least initially, misunderstood- and it’s already being trashed by critics who are rushing against editorial deadlines to pass judgment. But we’ll see. Unfortunately, the music industry still judges its success, or lack thereof, by CD sales. And even with Best Buy essentially buying every copy, to give away to potential big screen TV shoppers, no album is a respectable meal ticket compared to what the pigs used to enjoy at their old troughs.
Meanwhile, around the proverbial water cooler, among the casual fans- most people- it’s the old gripe that this isn’t Guns N’ Roses, that it’s Axl’s solo project, that it just isn’t GNR without Slash. My response? Bullshit. Not because Slash doesn’t like me. Because Slash isn’t the only dude on the planet who can play the guitar. Because Velvet Revolver sucks. Because the “new” Guns N’ Roses kicked my fuckin’ ass in Universal City in ’06.
The hardcore fans get it right: It’s Izzy Stradlin that’s most obviously missing from Guns N’ Roses these days, and there will never be another Appetite For Destruction without him. Fortunately for everyone besides Slash & Duff, he seems to be the original member most likely to return someday, and our fingers remain crossed.
Chinese Democracy has a lot of really, really great songs. But they were great when we first heard them on bootlegs years ago. And they’ve since been mixed and re-mixed and re-recorded and re-mixed and re-worked and re-recorded and re-mixed, exhaustingly, to the extent that they can’t do what they must- they can’t do what all truly classic albums do: Capture the moment… If not define it. Appetite For Destruction will continue to sell for years because it defined the late 80s party rock scene with a relentless, religious abandon, and was the absolute, undisputed pinnacle. When I think of 1993, I think of Vs., Pearl Jam’s flawless second album. The grunge regime was at its most confident and powerful, and Vs. was the movement’s loudest battle cry, still echoing today. The Downward Spiral changed the musical landscape in 1994, shattering all restraints. It remains a snapshot of that revolutionary moment when everyone started taking hard rock seriously. Through it all, the snowball that is Chinese Democracy had been rolling along, picking up bits and pieces of all of these great moments- but now that it’s finally come to a stop a decade and a half later, It’s hard to know what to make of the thing. It feels like the best retrospective compilation of b-sides and rarities ever assembled. But the sum of the parts lacks something. It doesn’t- it can’t– express its moment. And that missing piece is one of the things we love most about music.
As a sidenote, when I went down to Best Buy to purchase my copy this morning, the cashier delivered the one-liner of the century. The computerized register spaced out on us for a couple of minutes. When it finally accepted the transaction, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “thank you for your patience.”
Chinese Democracy is finally here, and I’m beyond happy to have it. Two thumbs up, so glad to have you back Axl. Try not to take so long with the next one, and please do give Izzy a call.
P.S. What’s up with that fucking bicycle? Next time around, if you’re having trouble finding a graphic designer, let me know. I can totally make myself available.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.