Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy

Now that Jacko's gone, Axl takes the throne of "Weirdest Face in Rock'.

I was two months from being born when Appetite For Destruction was released. The Use Your Illusions were released 11 days before my fourth birthday. Being born in 1987 meant that I not only missed the band at their peak, but I was also too young to experience their strange, slow disintegration. This also means that it took most of my near-22 year lifetime for Axl Rose to release this record: Chinese Democracy. Although admittedly, I didn’t accomplish much during those years either.

I won’t dwell on the fifteen year gestation period of this record for very long. I promise. But really, every review of this album needs to mention it, simply because it’s an almost unique phenomenon – it wasn’t that Axl Rose took a thirteen year break and then spent two years recording this; it wasn’t shelved back in 1996, then reworked and remastered in 2007. It’s a record that took fifteen years – fifteen goddamn years – to make. It would have been biologically possible for Axl to become a father, and a grandfather, in that same span of years. Then again, knowing Axl, he would have insisted on growing any potential offspring in petri dishes and incubation chambers, alternately aborting and mutating the foetuses until they matched his unknowable grand vision of what his child should be.

In case you missed that, that was an abstract metaphor for what happened with Chinese Democracy.

And no one's challenging him for "Most Ridiculous Hairstyle For A Weedy White Guy" anytime soon.

All things told, it does sound like a record that took fifteen years; not just to make, but to conceptualise and realise according to the dreams inside the undoubtedly fractured mind of Axl Rose. There’s so much happening inside every song that it begins to sound like a heavy metal orchestra playing the soundtrack to an twelve-car pile up: grinding guitar riffs are supplemented with endless, squealing guitar leads. It’s as if Axl took the maxim ‘Less is more’, decided that it was the most wrongheaded theory ever conceived, and made his own motto: ‘Too much isn’t enough yet – MORE SHREDDING, BUCKETHEAD!!

Which is to say that, at least in some ways, Chinese Democracy is an absolute mess; a disappointing, overwhelming rush of ideas and noise that has all the narcissistic, tortured, me-against-the-world aggression of Appetite, but buries it beneath mixes of proto-metal sludge and grind that don’t suit Axl anywhere near as well as the slick blues Izzy and Slash provided him. More to the point, it’s a deluge of music that doesn’t support its own weight – in nearly every song, you’ll find yourself saying ‘Well, he really should have left that part out’, or ‘He could have ended this two minutes ago’.

And come to think of it, in the case of “Sorry”, you’ll probably just end up skipping it, and never ever going back to it again. (Although do make sure to listen to at least the first minute, just so you hear Axl, amid wearying threats of ass-kickings, adopts a faux-Transylvanian accent for a brief, solitary line. There’s no discernible reason for it, and it’s bizarrely entertaining, not to mention fascinating.)

It all speaks to what this record is missing as compared to Appetite or even the UYIs: an editor. Someone to tell Axl when he’s being a ridiculous, pretentious prat, who’s verging on self-parody for vast periods of this album. Someone to grab him by the collar and demand that he drops the stupid-flappy-stupid MLK and Cool Hand Luke samples from “Madagascar”. Someone to tell him that the title track might not need a full minute of pointless build-up, considering it’s a riff-rock song that would’ve been considered below-par even on the oft-lamented Spaghetti Incident. Y’know, if that wasn’t a bad covers album.

Well, at least we know he didn't waste too much time on the album art.

It’s hard not to imagine Axl sitting in his L.A. mansion for the better part of those fifteen years (in other words, anytime he wasn’t touring or getting into barfights with fashion designers) with a gigantic flow chart of what every Guns n’ Roses song needs. As far as I can tell, the flow chart Axl would have drawn includes overblown piano, chugging guitars, histrionic guitar solos and a 100-piece choir. Drawing the gigantic flow chart would take the first year. Then, for each of the fourteen years afterwards, he would take a track from the album, and proceed to fling his own crap at the chart, to determine which constituent pieces would go into that song. And because he had a full year to do it, the entire flow chart would be completely covered in excrement, meaning every song ends up sounding completely overdone,  fairly homogenised, and – yeah – crap.

Actually, that’s unfair. There is a certain amount of upside to this record. “Street of Dreams”, “Catcher In The Rye”, “This I Love” and “Prostitute” are all pretty good: they’re faintly reminiscent of bygone classic epics like “Estranged” and “Civil War”. But they’d be better if they weren’t sandwiched between forty eight other songs that are sort of similar to them, but so much worse. Picture Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel, in a line-up with the Cheeky Girls, Kelly Osbourne and the uglier ones from Girls Aloud, and you might have some idea of the situation.

It’s ironic really. Velvet Revolver’s records (Libertad, especially) were sunk by the disconnect between Scott Weiland and the gutter-blues that Slash and Duff occasionally summoned up behind him. Axl’s Chinese Democracy is sunk by the complete lack of gutter-blues behind him. He can sound at home on the more Freddie Mercury/Elton John-style tracks, but as soon as Buckethead et al start throwing down their chunky, clanging guitar parts, it blunts any of the sly, wiry charisma Axl still has.

It took 15 years for Axl to create his masterpiece. It’ll take you 15 minutes to decide that it’s not his masterpiece, and go back to Appetite For Destruction.

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