[Editor’s note, Nov. 17, 2008: This review appeared in our April 2006 issue as an April Fools joke. Now, ‘Chinese Democracy,’ Guns N’ Roses’ decade-in-the-making opus, is finally here. Seriously. And SPIN.com’s on top of it. Click here to read our actual review of the new album, as well as the first single!]
It’s been a long time since Guns N’ Roses have released an album of new material. Everybody knows this, but it’s a fact that bears repeating. If you purchased a kitten on the day that Use Your Illusion I & II arrived in stores, it’s probably dead by now. As a consequence, there has been a great deal of pressure on Axl Rose to deliver a record that would validate a 15-year, $13 million wait. There is really only one way for Chinese Democracy to avoid utter and absolute failure: It needs to be the greatest rock album ever made.
Chinese Democracy is not the greatest rock album ever made.
More on SPIN.com: >> The Last ‘Chinese Democracy’ Blog Post Ever, Probably >> Listen to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’ >> Guns N’ Roses Leaker to Plead Guilty >> SPIN.com Interviews Slash! >> Slash Supports Gay Marriage in New Video ?Oh, it’s certainly awesome, but I don’t think it’s “15 years awesome.” Had Axl released his album after a silence of, say, 11 years and two months (at a cost of, say, $11.5 million), Chinese Democracy would be an undeniable masterpiece, but considering the circumstances, some of this work seems shoddy. I get the impression most of the 13 songs were written between 1993 and 1999, and Rose merely spent six or seven years touching them up in the studio. One is forced to wonder if a track like “Madagascar” was only recorded 75 or 80 times, which calls Axl’s alleged “maniacal perfectionism” directly into question.
Does Chinese Democracy offer glimpses of the paranoid, misogynistic genius we once heard on the soundtrack of Interview With the Vampire? Absotively. “The Blues” might be Rose’s crowning career achievement: It’s an epic combination of mid-period Stevie Wonder, early Elton John, and side two of In Through the Out Door. This is the kind of gutter-glam boogie ballad that makes “November Rain” seem like a bucket of burro vomit warming in the afternoon sun. Chinese Democracy is simultaneously propulsive and ponderous, and there are some electrifying guitar arpeggios on both “Silk Worm” and “Thursday Morning Strip Club” (performed, I assume, by either Buckethead, Robin Finck, Zakk Wylde, Johnny Marr, or Brian May — all five are listed in the liner notes). But this transcendence is sporadic at best: All too often, Rose’s sonic neurosis plunges into self-reflexive self-indulgence, most notably on the outdated 14-minute rap-rock anthem “Pound You (Good)” and an embarrassing “roots rock” duet with new buddy Dave Pirner titled “You’re Still Too Sweet Not to Be My Baby Anymore.” Several songs make thinly veiled references to the architect who designed Rose’s backyard topiary garden, a move that may confuse casual listeners.
Obviously, the sexy albatross hanging around Rose’s wiry jugular is simple modernity: Could he create an album that would sound contemporary — and competitive — in today’s ever-evolving marketplace? As such, it is hard to understand why he elected to have Chinese Democracy coproduced by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Kiss) and Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand). Songs like “Catcher in the Rye” exhibit the sculpted sheen of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, and the LP includes several tracks on which GNR bassist Tommy Stinson appears to be playing a note-for-note replication of the bass line from “Another Brick in the Wall.” Skeptics might also bristle at the anger that still resides in Axl’s heart; his hairstyle and facial features have changed, but his inner intensity remains grizzly-esque. On the caustic rocker “Slash and Burned,” Rose lashes out at his former bandmates now in Velvet Revolver with staggering specificity: “Your singer has cocaine eyes and a skeletonized trance / We’ll see if RCA recoups their advance.” Rose has also retained his pathological distaste for the media, lyrically attacking the editors of Vanity Fair, MTV personality Sway, numerous teenage bloggers, and the city hall reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer (who, curiously, has never written about pop music).
Still, Rose always possesses the potential to surprise us, as he does on a slightly reggaetón cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” and a faithful (albeit befuddling) version of “Think About You,” a tune actually written and recorded by Guns N’ Roses in 1987. But a deeper quandary remains: Does Chinese Democracy accomplish its goal? After all this time and all that money, will this album truly bring democracy to China?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
1. The album’s working title for much of 1994 and ’95 was Chinese Theocracy. 2. To capture a specific drum sound, Rose coated the walls of his home studio with four inches of wet adobe from the Sonoran Desert. 3. Two weeks before his death in 2002, ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer contributed guitar for a song tentatively titled “Janky Holocaust.” However, Rose eventually dropped the track, citing “dehydration.” 4. The liner notes include Rose’s complete voting record, dating to 1992. 5. This version of Chinese Democracy only exists in an alternative reality ruled by the fools of April.