I am an American born in the first half of the 1970s, with a penis. In other words, I saw The Phantom Menace the day it came out.
And while that’s pretty much a universally derided piece of pop-cultural flotsam at this point, sitting through it that first night didn’t feel uncomfortable or annoying or even disappointing. No, far worse: It didn’t feel like anything.
Forced to compete against its own generation-defining legacy, the odds against the endeavor’s success were impossibly stacked from the outset; the end result seemed less like a movie meant to forge a warm emotional bond with an audience weaned on its predecessors’ iconography and vernacular than a state-of-the-art facsimile, engineered to stimulate familiarity-oriented sensory-response nerve centers. The only things more stilted and artificial than the computer-generated characters were the human ones. Also, it didn’t make any fucking sense.
And we probably knew this would be the case before the house lights even dimmed, yet for 16 years, the specter of this movie — the anticipation of it, the rumor-mongering and the hand-wringing — was something that too many of us thought way too much about. So when the house lights back came up, even before the bitching and the bashing could begin, the hollow realization set in that even if the movie had been good, it still would have been less exciting than wondering if it would be good.
All of which brings us to Chinese Democracy.
Snuck anti-climactically into Best Buy stores (and, of course, torrent sites), the final product couldn’t possibly live up to the 16 years’ — where have I heard that number before? — worth of innuendo and legend surrounding its gestation. (To his credit, Axl himself has suggested as much, perhaps betraying his final tether to reality.)
The album is the aural equivalent of a CGI-stuffed blockbuster from Skywalker Ranch — wall-to-wall explosions, but no real sense of danger. Bells and whistles and orchestras and pianos and dramatic crescendos abound on a litany of would-be epic songs — November drizzles, all emoting, no emotion — none of which are bad enough to be laughable or memorable enough to be a worthwhile payoff.
Fantasies of budget-busting 70-piece symphonies milling about in a studio foyer while Axl tends to his cornrows give way to the realization that this may well all be ProTools wankery. It all sounds quite a bit like Guns N’ Roses, only…not quite. Everything you’d think you’d want to hear is present and accounted for, yet the music feels so precise and bloodless, polished and sanded down and polished again to a shiny nub. “Riad N’ the Bedouins” — does Axl get paid by the apostrophe? — is a rare moment of relatively undercooked feistiness. But here’s the rub: None of this matters a whit.
With Chinese Democracy now an honest-to-goodness Actual Thing, an album among many, many other albums, the cottage industry of writing about it in the abstract is, like so many other industries right now, being shuttered, its personnel scuttled and forced to find real work.
The only way the record could have lived up to its legend would have been to never come out at all; that it is instead merely, ultimately, a fair-to-middling rock album is nothing to get mad at. It isn’t Axl Rose’s fault you’re not 15 and hearing “Welcome to the Jungle” for the first time, and the fact that he understands this and doesn’t give a shit almost makes you forgive him for willfully stripping his band of the personality and soul and tension that made you care in the first place. Almost.
Like another wise fella done said, the waiting is the hardest part; but it’s also the most fulfilling, offering mystery and wonder in a way that Actual Things rarely provide.
Dear Kevin Shields: Sell your 16-track. Let us dangle.
Watch: Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle”