Well it finally arrived – the new Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy, was released last weekend; just 17 years after the last original studio material. Now only one member of the band remains, owning the rights to the name.
For the last few years the rumours of this album’s release started to become a long, sad joke – Chinese Democracy was/is basically the Smile for Generation X’ers.
I went straight out to buy a copy on Saturday morning, because over the last few weeks I had been getting quite excited about hearing the album. I know various tracks have been available online for a while but it struck me that Chinese Democracy would be an album to experience as just that: an album – maybe the last time some real hype would exist and potentially pay off.
Previously I had wondered if the album would ever happen – and I was pretty sure it would be a car-crash. I still love Appetite for Destruction and G’n’R Lies and the Illusion albums. Actually, I really dig The Spaghetti Incident? too…. But I figured that this new Axl-only version of Guns N' Roses was going to be something I didn’t need to know about.
All of that changed when I heard one song – sent to me about three weeks ago. Normally when a record company sends through a one- or two-song sampler I have no interest, I still like to hear finished, completed albums but with this my curiosity was piqued. And I loved the track – it made me hopeful that the finished album might indeed be good. It might even justify the 17-year lapse.
At the time of writing this post I have heard the album a handful of times. My opinion, right now: very good. A strong album that is not without its misfires (as was the case with both of the Use Your Illusion albums) but overall Chinese Democracy is compelling, quirky and well worth a few listens. The wait has added weight to the finished release – this is big, epic, grandiose, and is a logical extension of where the early-1990s G’n’R were at, but it is not quite Use Your Illusion III (though at times it is very close). Axl Rose really has created his own musical landscape, his own idiom, a language that maybe only he understands completely.
The opening title track does a fine job in bridging the gap between the defined sound of G’n’R and the Nu-metal trend of a few years ago; this is a Guns N' Roses that might manage to do what is so hard in music: appeal to the old guard and win new fans. So often reviewers write this is good but it won’t win any new fans – I think Chinese Democracy will. And sure there will be old fans that won’t be interested in ever hearing it and many who will be expecting the impossible and will therefore be unhappy, but I think – at this early stage – the album is a) well worth experiencing, particularly if you ever liked anything about Guns N' Roses ever and b) it just might be the work of genius that Axl Rose so often proclaimed in the overly long buildup.
On first listen the first two tracks don’t exactly grab you and hold you – but they are not embarrassing at all. After my third spin of the album I have decided that track two, Shackler’s Revenge, is great, but I’m still not sold on the title track. To begin with the album really only started to get better with, well, a track called Better; the third song. The problem there is that Better would not have worked as an album opener. But it features playing that manages to somehow redefine the tired old idea of the bluesy guitar solo, sitting somewhere between Slash’s mellifluous metal and Eric Clapton when he’s not just going through the motions.
From track four onward, this is all epic all the way – and Buckethead’s widdly-widdly guitar solos are the best, contextually, since his incongruous late-night shred solo album, Colma. And Axl delights in ripping himself off several times, his Elton John-like turns at the piano threatening to rewrite Estranged and November Rain more than once. And his trademark gutter-rasp remains one of the most distinctive vocal instruments of the last quarter century in hard rock.
As the final song (Prostitute) plays out and the album leaves the way it came in – with a moody, textural wafting of sound, I think back to that ridiculous track My World that closed off Use Your Illusion II – sequentially the last piece of original music presented under the Guns N' Roses moniker as part of a finished album. Axl croaked over a confused clash of sounds “you wanna step into my world...” He spoke of the psychotic state of things and challenged his fans.
With the release of Chinese Democracy we are stepping in to his world, finally. One that he has built up around him for close to 20 years, a project that could flop like Kevin Costner’s Waterworld or could return him to the mountain. We step into the world but are none the wiser about how this world works.
It’s early, and I need more time with the album – but it feels like the right record for Axl to release. I loved spending the weekend playing it over and over – twice in a row at one point, which hardly ever happens these days. I am happy to have people laugh and tell me how wrong I am in saying this but Chinese Democracy made me believe in Axl’s genius.
The album is not without its flaws (it doesn’t start super strong and is at least three songs too long, as were both of the Illusion albums) but this is the sound of an artist who has placed it all on the line, backed himself when hardly anyone else would, been painted as the annoying, angry, bitter, bemusing megalomaniac; been accused of stalling for fear of failure; been deemed irrelevant.
Well I enjoyed stepping into his world – and the 17 years feels irrelevant. Chinese Democracy will be on my end-of-the-year Best Albums list.
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