It's not as bad as you think — it's worse
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
After 14 years, it’s here. Axl Rose’s version of Guns N’ Roses have finally released Chinese Democracy. Predictably, it doesn’t measure up to the band’s glory era of 1987-1991, and it stoops much lower than that. Actually trying to sum up all the ways this album fails, all the missteps and all of the lost opportunities is incredibly difficult. This review will try valiantly to illustrate as many of those aspects as possible, saving you, dear reader, from having to listen to this monstrosity yourself.
Let us begin at the beginning. The opening notes of “Chinese Democracy” sound like the “heavy metal guitar riff” button on a Cassio. After a minute and a half of these processed chords, Rose’s quintuple-tracked vocals come in saying, um, something, and it carries on, and when the next track, “Shackler’s Revenge,” starts, the sound is somehow even more overblown. There are at least 15 vocal tracks on this one song. Perhaps 40. Rose makes himself sound like a demon to start, but not in any sort of frightening way. It’s more like the way I lower my voice when I want to make my three-year-old cousin laugh: “oooh, I’m gonna eat youuu aaarrrrggghhh!!!” Or, as Rose sings, “I got a funny feeling/something ain’t right today.” One positive note, at least, is that it caused this listener to immediately forget what “Chinese Democracy” sounded like.
Honestly, this album is horrifying. There are faux R&B missteps. Wuss rock is disguised as hard rock. Axl Rose’s infamous disposition as a misunderstood recluse is expressed here as whiny, mediocre sludge where he was going for insightful, in-your-face revelations. Plenty of albums miss the mark; there’s nothing new or exciting about that. But this album is just a train wreck. It’s what heavy metal would sound like as interpreted by a particularly uninspired Scott Weiland. The random guitar battles in Guitar Hero III are infinitely more compelling than anything offered here.
Chinese Democracy was set up to fail from the beginning. There was no way for this album to escape its fate. Taking 14 years to record an album (roughly one year per song), the countless lineup changes, the expulsion/resignations of Slash, Duff and Matt Sorum, the disastrous appearance at the MTV Awards in 2002, failed tours … it all added up to a monster that could never be good enough to justify the countless follies and time lost. This would have had to be some sublime combination of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paranoid, Born to Run and, yes, Appetite for Destruction to be a success. It would have had to have been one of the greatest albums ever. At the very least, the best of 2008. Not surprisingly, it’s not close to either.
This is music produced and re-produced in a last-ditch effort to remain relevant, and it couldn’t have failed more miserably. This is music that’s lifeless. It’s devoid of passionate solos, or anything remotely dangerous. As bad as, say, Metallica’s St. Anger was, at least it was angry. Through the tinny sludge of that record, which also took too long to produce, at least James Hetfield and company were driven and trying to say something. What is Rose trying to say here? That seven guitar tracks per song equals amazing music? That the millions, literally, millions of dollars spent would make the wait worth it? And what did Martin Luther King Jr. ever do to deserve being dragged into this disaster? His “I Have a Dream” speech is sampled in the middle of “Madagascar,” for some unholy reason.
What about “Street of Dreams?” With it’s sham piano intro, and the shockingly empty opening lyrics — “All the love in the world couldn’t save you, oooooo oooo ooo ooo” — it sounds like Rose is trying to craft the long-awaited follow-up to “November Rain.” What’s the result? A song so bland and lifeless, Aerosmith might have left it off their last album. Aerosmith!
If that’s not enough, take this gem from “If the World,” which shows Rose’s obvious poetic talents, as channeled through a self-righteous 14-year-old boy, or a particularly mopey 12-year-old girl:
“Never thought all the love that I was lookin’ for
Could ever be so close to me
But you’re the only one
I have ever loved that has ever loved me
And now you got the best of me.”
There are no bright spots. “Catcher in the Rye” is as bland as anything Hinder would spit out. “Riad N’ the Bedoins” is a color-by-numbers rocker that offer nothing and says less. This record refuses to end, gets progressively worse, and then, “Sorry” hits during the back half. This song is, somehow, the low light of this record. Listen, as Rose yowls in his low, ever-so-sincere, “Civil War” voice:
“You close your eyes
All well an’ good
I’ll kick your ass
Like I said that I would.”
The difference between “Sorry” and “Civil War?” Seventeen years ago, “Civil War” was good. So were Guns N’ Roses.
To call this Guns N’ Roses is a stretch, as everyone knows. This is not the same band that lit a fire under the music world with Appetite for Destruction 21 years ago. The musicians that crafted the blowout of Use Your Illusion, which contained fire-breathing rockers and incredible ballads, have been cast off in favor of a faceless army of studio henchmen. Even Buckethead, brought in to fill the gaping void left by Slash, long ago jumped off of this hell-bound train. As the closing notes of “Prostitute” drag out, the only positive feeling on this entire record is produced — relief. Finally, after more than an hour, it’s over.
Axl Rose has his destiny laid out before him, and he is embracing it. The inevitable initial success of this record will be tempered over time by slagging sales and falling opinion. Tours will continue to be cancelled, band members will come and go, and Rose will slink further into exile, sealed off somewhere in the Hollywood hills, left to rediscover his muse.
Will there be another album? Maybe. Perhaps in five, maybe even 10 years, Rose will craft a follow-up that he feels is worthy of release. And maybe, given another decade, Rose will finally have something worthwhile to say. Remember, he has nowhere to go but up.