Thomas Wolfe wrote a modernist novel called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Normally, I wouldn’t mention that here, but I think that’s the best way I can sum up my reaction to Guns n’ Roses’ (read: Axl Rose’s) much ballyhooed new opus, “Chinese Democracy.”
It took me several days to process this album. I’ll fully admit that I couldn’t get through it in a single sitting, but not because I was acoustically offended. Rather, I just wasn’t that interested. That very statement is perhaps the most damning thing I could say about it. After all the nonsense and delays and hype and run-around, I would have almost preferred the album to be a memorable, spectacular failure, then just another exercise in mundane banality. Regrettable though it may be I fear that this album may only be remembered for its systemic dysfunction over the course of its genesis. That, and maybe free Dr. Pepper.
(Sidebar, did any of you try to get your free Dr Pepper and have success? I know I didn’t. On the rare occasion I could get through to the website, upon entering my information, I usually got a screen full of gibberish followed by a server error. I can’t help but wonder if Dr Pepper didn’t take a laissez-faire attitude toward how much capacity their servers had. I know they temporarily extended the deadline so that you could call 1-888-DR PEPPER to get your voucher, but by that point, I had given up, as I assume many had. Maybe that was all part of the plan, too.)
For long stretches, “Chinese Democracy” almost sounds like a concept album; an attempt by Axl Rose to vary his theatrics and expand his aural prowess. The attempt falls short, as too many of the tracks never go anywhere, they just sort of wallow in stagnant sound. Considering G n’ R spent a chunk of their career trying to write the soundtrack to a forty car pileup, I was slightly taken aback. I understand that some of G n’ R’s more famous songs are their assorted (piano) ballads, but this is also the band that gave us “Appetite for Destruction.” What happened? Where are the down and dirty riffs? Where are the ubiquitous symbols of rock and roll excess? Where are the toe-tapping “Bad Obsessions?” Where is Slash standing in the desert wailing away on his guitar in a righteous solo?
There are shining moments here, but they reek of Buckethead. He could well take those songs, edit out the vocals, and release them on his own album without it feeling out of place. The first two, “Chinese Democracy,” and “Shackler’s Revenge” in particular are good songs, but carry that one trait. I’m as big a Buckethead fan as the next guy, but while his guitar dictates many of the good songs, he also dominates them.
The excellent guitar work however is the main selling point of the album. Apart from that, the production gets dense in spots, which takes away from the album’s accessibility. This fades as the number of listens increases, but that assumes people listen to it more than once. I almost feel like this album goes in too many directions, tries to take fruit from too many different trees. The lack of unity as the album swings from melodramatic to raw emotion, and then from rock to metal to beats bordering almost on hip-hop and then to ballads, makes it tough to get a flow.
Ultimately, this is my over-arching issue with “Chinese Democracy.” It simply doesn’t *sound* like Guns n’ Roses. While Nirvana gets the lion’s share of the credit for killing hair metal (and rightfully so,) people are quick to forget that G n’ R was one of the first bands of that era that proved you could have long hair and sing the occasional ballad without having to be a pansy. I wish this weren’t called ‘Guns n’ Roses,’ because it really isn’t. Call it anything else: “Roses n’ Guns,” “Used My Illusion,” “Axl Rose and the Talented Contract Mercenaries,” call it anything but Black Sabbath (no wait, that was Tony Iommi.) For all the press given to the infighting between Axl and Slash and Axl and Buckethead, Izzy Stradlin is sorely missed here. The songs just plain don’t sound right without his influence.
I wrote that I expected “Chinese Democracy” to end up a diluted version of “Use Your Illusion.” What we’ve received I think may be a step down from that. As stated, there are a handful of good songs, “Better,” “Scraped,” “IRS,” and one or two more. On the flip side, I can’t shake my earlier reaction that the album didn’t really captivate me. I wasn’t horrified; I just wasn’t riveted.
My friend Ilya wrote to me in preemption of my review, and I’ll borrow from his email (he quite likes the new album):
“In the past ten years, most mainstream bands have achieved success based purely on their image, their ability to manipulate rudimentary musical elements in such a way as to evoke certain adjectives from music critics. Like, Bjork is allowed to get away with plucking one string on a sitar three times, because that's enough for Pitchfork to cite her "musical diversity." In a way, this lack of substance applies to everyone, from such vulgar peasants as Nickelback to such sophisticated peasants as Radiohead. In that light, it is actually quite satisfying to hear [Guns n’ Roses] who can actually play some instruments, while displaying some theatrical ambition in the process.”
While I agree with what he’s saying, I’m not sure that’s a ringing endorsement. (But hey, a free shot at Bjork and Nickelback and Radiohead can’t be a bad thing.) I give Axl all the credit in the world for not just pumping out something generic. It would have been easy for him to look around, copy the current blasé sound, dance around yelling “Look at me, I’m still relevant!” and walk away with a boatload of cash. Instead, he tried something new, although perhaps not his best idea. Maybe I just plain expect more from a band with the reputation and history of Guns n’ Roses, and whether or not that’s fair is a debatable issue. On the other hand, maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. After seventeen years in the oven, this one got a little overcooked.