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Album review: Guns N' Roses' 'Chinese Democracy'

Chinese_democracy_cover When Axl Rose announced in December 2006 that the new Guns N' Roses album, "Chinese Democracy," would be issued the following March -- the last false ending to a drama nearly as long-lasting as the Vietnam War and culminating today, as the hordes rush to exclusive retailer Best Buy to snap up the final version -- he briefly stepped out of the smoke-machine haze that surrounds him and feigned modesty. Vouching for the veracity and passion of his work, he seemingly aimed to lower expectations, writing, "In the end, it's just an album."

That may be the most ridiculous statement Rose has made in 17 years of whoppers. Just an album! Sure, and "Citizen Kane" was just a movie. And Brando as Don Corleone was just a mid-career acting gig.

Everyone with a passing interest in rock knows the abbreviated history of "Chinese Democracy." Recording for the album, the follow-up to Guns N' Roses' mammoth, chart-topping "Use Your Illusion" project, began in the early 1990s. Soon, though, Rose's authoritarian grip squeezed the life out of the original lineup, including his lead guitarist and artistic foil, Slash, and it went splat. Out of that goo rose the post-Guns band Velvet Revolver on one side and Axl, increasingly alone, on the other.

For the next decade and a half, Rose continued to work, running through band members like so many speed dates. Some, like avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, fled; others, like longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, stuck. This amorphous Guns N' Roses toured with varying degrees of success and spent time recording in 14 different studios in L.A., Las Vegas, London and New York.

Meanwhile, Rose got older (he's 46 now), decided he looked good in cornrows, and spent something like $13 million on a project few thought he would complete. The powers behind the already failing music industry gave a collective bloodcurdling scream.

Axl_rose_500_2

The wait is over

And now it's here. The album that's been referred to as a "white whale" more times than Melville's own Moby Dick has been stabbed through with a spear and brought to ground. Fourteen tracks, no blubber.

Half the songs classify loosely as ballads, while the others are more forcefully up-tempo, but nearly every one makes unexpected stylistic switches. The effect is theatrical, with voicings and arrangements often taking precedence over riffs and grooves, making "Chinese Democracy" more like the score to a rock opera than an arena-oriented assault.

Like Brando and "Kane" mastermind Orson Welles, Rose is a macho refusenik whose career path illustrates how hard it can be for an ego-driven man to separate lofty ideals from fleshly indulgences. And though it's probably too cryptic to have the impact of the masterpieces to which I've dared compare it, "Chinese Democracy" does reach that far. Rose's fight to become and remain an auteur in a pop world increasingly hostile to such individualists has become a performance in itself. "Chinese Democracy" is its finale, the explosive end to a period of silence that, in retrospect, had its own eloquence.

It isn't exactly an accessible album, though many hooks and bombastic rock moments surface within its layers. Contrary to early reports, Rose didn't plunge into the "nu metal" style industrial rock that he'd embraced a decade ago with the lone track "Oh My God." Had he done so, producing an album's worth of static-laden ravers, like the album's first single and title track, he might have embraced middle age as a respectable experimental rocker. Conversely, had he fulfilled the dreams of the rabble who can't get past "Appetite for Destruction," reconnecting with Slash at the old intersection of punk and metal, he would have roared back as the king of the charts without making much artistic progress.

Instead, making this album has transformed Rose from a hungry contrarian to a full-blown desert prophet, howling mightily in protest against a pop industry that encourages its stars to innovate only within the realm of what sells best. At the same time, he's resisted the nostalgia that would have sent him after a purer time or sound, preferring to invest in a foggy future. Purity is the opposite of what Rose seeks on "Chinese Democracy." Convolution is everything as he spirals toward a total sound even he can't quite apprehend.

"Chinese Democracy" is a test for contemporary ears, an album that turns in upon itself instead of reaching out to instantly become a ring tone. Nothing on it immediately reveals its essence. Even the songs with hooks, such as the sing-song rant "Better" and the grande olde ballad "Street of Dreams," derail themselves in subtle ways, requiring the listener to reconsider her first judgment. This will frustrate plenty of listeners; lovers of "edgy" music may find it too melodic and rooted in the blues, while fans seeking simple catharsis may rue the many shifts in tone and tempo.

Versions of these final 14 tracks have been floating around the Internet throughout Rose's exile. Some may date from before the "Use Your Illusion" sessions. Rose kept building on them, rewriting, hiring and alienating all those producers and collaborators -- the album's credits, which include Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck and Primus drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia, read like an Oscar night thank-you list from hell -- and trying everything from multitracking his voice to resemble a children's choir to sampling the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

The end result is a cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness, traditional rock bravado and Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness. The snake-dance-inspiring rhythms that bring Rose's libido to life occasionally dominate, as do the romantic piano runs that represent his heart. Neither overcomes the other, and sometimes both collide in the same song.

Playing the reference game with "Chinese Democracy" is a thankless task. Individual songs could be compared to everything from Queen (Rose claims that influence, though he disposed of a guitar solo Brian May gave him for one song) to My Chemical Romance, Heart, Wings, Korn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Bowie in his Berlin phase, U2 after "Achtung Baby!" and Curtis Mayfield circa "Freddie's Dead." Oh, and to Guns N' Roses, especially the more cracked version of that band behind "Use Your Illusion II." But rarely does a song settle anywhere. It's even difficult to declare the ballads pretty or the rockers simply ferocious.

It's also pointless to dwell too long on individual players besides Rose. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed and bassist Tommy Stinson appear on most tracks; they must have been the most successful at tolerating Rose's megalomania. As for the album's much-touted guitar army: When five different players are featured on one song, individualism becomes impossible, no matter who's soloing. Many early Guns N' Roses songs are structured as literal dialogues between Rose and Slash, with the singer's wild falsetto directly responding to and setting up the guitarist's rococo riffing. "Chinese Democracy" features no such exchanges. The real tension here is internal, and Rose's alone.

It's the same push-pull that defines everything Rose has created, including his assumed name: steely, aggressive hypermasculinity versus lush, feminine openness. Rose's music tells the saga of the mutually abusive relationship between the freight train's axle and the rose it crushes, a potentially poisonous flower that keeps growing back.

This is a central plotline in male-centered heroic tales, and it's key to the music of artists as diverse as Richard Wagner and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But few artists have committed so strongly to both sides at once. Never mind the tales of childhood abuse and adult violence (often allegedly toward women) that fill out Rose's biography. All of that ugliness is right there in the music, in Rose's primal yowl and marauding metal-punk assaults. And anyone who's heard "November Rain" -- that's all of us -- knows that florid loveliness resides there too.

On "Chinese Democracy," Rose reflects on the cost of making art that fully expresses that dichotomy. This is where we return to "Citizen Kane," another story that plays out the tension between a wounded heart and an iron fist, and to Rose's soul mate Brando, who was also a brute and an aesthete, and who tragically misstepped as often as he triumphed.

Ever the enigma

Could Rose be self-aware enough to genuinely capture this life-defining conflict? He seems to be trying on "Chinese Democracy." But his lyrics, like the songs' musical twists, are hard to parse; their knottiness may be the album's ultimate downfall. It's tough to imagine anyone besides Rose connecting many of these songs to their day-to-day experiences. In "Rhiad and the Bedouins," he seems to be comparing himself to a besieged Middle Eastern state. "Catcher in the Rye" spits at mortality while nodding toward another famously blocked artist, J.D. Salinger, but its last verse devolves into incomprehensibility. "Madagascar," the one in which Rose pairs his voice with Dr. King's, is a sort of civil-rights-era- inspired retelling of Odysseus' journey across a monster-ridden sea.

At least that's what it sounds like to this listener, bringing my own history and imagination into the listening experience. Whether it's intentional or the result of Rose's addled grandiloquence, the strangeness inherent in these songs allows for an old-fashioned rock 'n' roll pleasure: the chance to grasp that album cover (OK, gaze at that image on your MP3 player screen) and make up your own solutions to its mysteries. Whether history declares it a tragedy or a farce, this is one album that's more than a pop exercise. And for that, Axl Rose can finally take a bow.

--Ann Powers

"Chinese Democracy" cover courtesy Geffen Records

Axl Rose photo courtesy Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

 
Comments () | Archives (152)

I'm with Tony and the others - yes I'm literate, but that doesn't mean I need to read several paragraphs of written masturbation that barely form any real conclusions. How is this helpful? To paraphrase Billy Madison, we are all dumber after reading this. That said, I do appreciate the attempt to get deep on GnR - the album certainly deserves a high degree of analysis, and not just the blow-off.

My $.02 - there are at least 9 songs I would call "good" on the album (after only a few listens). And any album with 3 or more killer songs after the first few listens usually makes it into my "good album" category. More than that is just bonus. Triple that is really effing exciting. And as I listen over time I pull out more and more tracks that are interesting for various reasons. After 5 listens - still very much early days - I see this album having all the potential in the world to become great.

It's different than the old Guns to be sure, but how might the band have evolved if it had stayed together? Velvet Revolver is a more direct descendant - musically and personnel-wise - of the true Guns n' Roses than Axl's new band. But that doesn't make what Axl has produced any less interesting in its own right.

So for me, Chinese Democracy is a success. Has it totally lived up to the hype? Maybe not. But could anything live up to this kind of hype?

Wow....is this a five star or one star album?...on scale of 1-10 what is it? I can't tell if is like their old stuff or all brand new....what a crappy review this lady needs to write a review not a faulkner book.

You think this review was confusing and long-winded? Read the one in the New York Times. I haven't been able to figure out if anyone likes this album. Guess I'll have to listen and decide for myself. Which is what I always do.

woah, i think the point of a "review" may have been slightly missed there! For all us GNR fans, we *know* the history and we didn't need a lesson.
Sure, for those who aren't familliar it's nice to give a nod to it all, but surely not at the expense of saying what you *thought* of the album???

A smart, literate, and well written review. A large, ambitious, and complicated work can't be reduced to thumbs up or thumbs down. I thought this review matched the ambition of the art it described, which seems fitting.

this review was awful, not only because it took a semester to read, but because the album sucks.

Um, dude er dudette, your words far outweigh the great Axl. Your pompas-ity is only surpassed by the Axl-rods, and your pas deux trois around your je ne c'est quoi street-smarts truly express nil as far as insight on this digital art form.

Do you ever listen to records or do you just blog on and on about them in your journal and then publish them in the paper? Do rock critics not get edited? If Axl is the Citizen Kane, then you are the King Of Comedy.

Please go back to your basement and listen the record and in three concise sentences either say GNR rocks or not.

I didn't realize that to review "Chinese Democracy" one is require to understand Chinese.

i think the album is an incredible achievement. way better than i could have imagined. very original, a real artistic statement.

"You use a lot of words to say nothing" - Homer Simpson

am i missing something?

aren't gnr the most tasteless, overrated and overhyped pile of medocrity in the rock world? oh, i forgot about metallica..................

I must admit I am very surprised at some of the above comments. In fact when I scrolled down to comment it was with the intention of complimenting the article. It very eloquently described exactly my reaction to the album. Rather than expressing intense admiration or distaste at small segments of the album, this review takes the album as a whole and makes a refreshing change from irritatingly over-opinionated journalists of whom I often question how qualified they are to make such judgements.

So thanks Ann for what I consider to be an excellent piece of journalism.

Ann Powers, all I have to say is that to those who really try to understand axl or have even chased it, you definately hit the nail on the head for all those who know what ur talking about. Honestly, you did more than an album review but an extensive look into what this can say about the reclusive, legendary figure that is axl rose. I applaud you for that. You really watered my eyes with it. Honest to God. Your review tops that of any i read even rolling stone's. I hope this review makes it into his biography one day or even in the hands of axl which im sure it did.

-- THANK YOU ANN!! You know ur stuff.

Awsesome Review! Thanks!!

This review gave no verdict and was a bit painful to read. I review this review and give is a very below average rating.

Great album. Great review.

For every Hemingway, there is a Faulkner. I thought the review was nicely done, and I look forward to hearing the album.

Methinks Ann Powers is trying to impress Axl. Maybe she still has the hots for him.

please write a review in english. oh.. and dont forget to listen to the songs before you write the review

The comments on the article are really funny - I listened to the album - and realized why the article is so long and this comment is starting to drag - we can't tell the sad truth because we are afraid of Axl! The album is pretty irritating though - I loved Appetite, too.

If this is a spoof piece it is brilliant; a masterpiece of a parody of a certain branch of music criticism that never mentally graduated from college--i.e. folks who think that reviews "should match the ambition of the art described". No they shouldn't you dummy, they can't if they tried, and when they try this is what turns out of course::cheap, very cheap, MSword enhanced pseudo-literature.

No one can seriously imply that critics of this review are somehow illiterate or intellectually inadequate, right? I mean *nobody* is so hopelessly stupid and supremely confident at the same time. Right?

Right?

Anyway, it's still telling that no critic wants to come out and embrace or blast this album. That's typically the case with masterpieces ahead of their time...or disastrous works from former bona fide geniuses. I guess I'll have to hear by myself; wow what a novel concept.

Wonderful review. One of the few reviews that shows any real analysis of both the album itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation. It's encouraging to see that someone not only listened to the album thoroughly, they also provide informed insight into the circumstances and drama surrounding the album's creation

"talking about music is like dancing about architecture."
ha ha ha ha
from now on a reviewer should just write yes or no, good or bad, if they like it or not.
then wait for the same people that complained about this review caterwaul about not having enough information about the cd.
do you really need a "critic" to tell you what to buy?
if so...then buy marquee moon by television, spirit of eden by talk talk and every record that michael franti has touched.
do that and hit me back in a few weeks about how much you life has changed.
i will wait with bated breath until you can get your head around "spirit of eden".

I actually appreciated most of the review. I think she might have been trying to say that - bad or good it is still worth a listen. That being said, the closing paragraph is atrocious.
What a HUGE cop-out! Ann Powers, you are a music critic! Did you like it or not and why?!?! Do your job!
I suspect that you are too cowardly to say whether or not you liked it. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure you'll share the opinion of the best critics (the ones with guts) once they have informed you WHETHER IT IS GOOD OR BAD!!!
You have the wrong job if you are too scared to tell us your opinion. Maybe you could write some nice obituaries or something...

Well written and well thought-out review. Oh, and to all of you sitting there going, "what does she mean?" go listen to the whole thing on MYSPACE if you want to know if it's "good or bad", simpletons.

The reviewer is too ambiguous, and writes 'War and Peace' when only a short story is needed. Just tell us, Ann, is Axl's voice of old still there? Or, could it be even richer?

 
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