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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 think it is a good review.

Illiterates: go back to your GOP headquarters and praise Palin.

You are afraid to call it. But, I guess I am to. Best guess: To complex for mainstream, but he will succeed with former fans and adhd musicians. I personally like it, but I pretty much fall in both of those categories.

William

Oh, and you need to get over sexism. Men and women are different. Accept that and you will have a life again. :-)

It is obvious that she has found a use for her English degree. That or the Thesaurus is her Bible. Either way, the album is good. In an era of lip-syncing pop heads and New Kinds reunion tours, an album like this will come in handy.

Cheers.

the rose crushed by the axel....kind of a stretch no?

So the album is.... good or not? Can't find any clear answers in this self indulgent nonsense.

too too too too too too too ... testing, testing, testing.

I know I typed "too."

I agree, this album review is quite possibly the most verbose thing ever written on a band that has pretty much done nothing in over 10 years, and a band that in its heyday was about and projected the image of nihilism and excess.

More to the point, I've grown tired of Ann Powers' ramblings, from her god awful Radiohead review, to the ridiculous analysis of T.I's lame rap song, and now this. Hey Powers, didn't know GnR would be your raison d'etre.

How about just say, "the album is full of a diverse array of influences, from Curtis Mayfield to My Chemical Romance. The theme of duality features prominently throughout, and the music will not satisfy those of the Radiohead persuasion, nor those old school fans who fondly remember the Appetite for Destruction days. This is a slow burn for some, and a travesty to others, but worth your listen nevertheless."

It shouldn't take someone 20 paragraphs to admit they couldn't form an opinion of something. Pompous, overwritten, pop-psychological gibberish meant for snobs who equate long-syllabled words with good writing. Let's try again as a bad poem!

Rose is conflicted
It shows in his music;
This album's hard to quantify
Genius & madness walk hand in hand.


right now listening to it on the portugal's premiere of the album and amazed!!

This album suck so bad! Oh my God! Why I buy this? What wrong with me? Man oh man, review make doo doo sound like precious object! It have no redeeming value other than coaster for mojito or mirror for making eyebrow look clean. Yuck! I smell doo doo every time CD plays! I try to take off repeat but it stuck! Oh crap! What I do now? This hurt my head worse than sleeping without vodka! I so mad now! Eighteen dollar down drain! Mister Rose you tool! Go away! Forever!

Holy smokes what a mess...if you like QUEEN or maybe bombastic rock operas, then this is your album..but if you're a metal head or a fan of that Hollywood 86-89 era you'll be disappointed...sure the solos and the voices are cool...but along the way..the purpose of music was lost...flaying in the air aimlessly goes Axl..
However I respect his putting a CD his vision, his way.
I'm sure millions will buy...but the Real Guns..has been lost to time.


It's amazing how people aren't at all interested in an intelligently written article. Just "CARN GIVE US A THUMBS UP OR DOWN. DID IT SUCK OR NOT!!".

The writer actually stated what she felt about the album. But since it wasn't reduced to a score out of 10 or a "THUMBS UP. IT ROCKS HARD!" people are apparantly lost.
After so long, does anyone think they are not going to check out this album for themselves, regardless of what ANY review says? MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND!!!

To give it such an over simplified rating would be completely missing the point on what has turned out to be an epic journey of artistic expression. The review reflects that perfectly, and is intelligent and well written. Well done Ann Powers.

a great, literate review. thanks.

I got this album today and have almost listened to it twice. All I can say is that it will take a few listens and needs to be played LOUD. It is complex and most songs don't lend themselves to instant comprehension, either lyrically or musically. Having said that, this is a MASTERPIECE of modern music and when given the opportunity to be fully digested, will leave you stunned.

i love their new album and im just barely 13 yrs old....

i think usually, bands who make albums use one main rhythm or melody, but this is just like a chunk of other genres and pieces of art mixed together. it creates a masterpieceeee :]

i love better, streets of dreams, i.r.s, and a the intro for if the world.


goshdang...

I think everyone can afford to just lsiten to it alone, on a long drive on the freeway and figure it out for themselves. its hard not to like the songs, just try.

-"It isn't exactly an accessible album"
Is that code for the songs suck? Whatever YOU think...It's hard to classify this as a true "Guns" album. More like an Axle Rose solo album. Personally, I don't like it.

And most music critics write for themselves. It's like they're paid by the word... And the less sense you can make to the average reader, the better. Just because you use a lot of words...doesn't mean you know how to USE them.

the album is shocking! It's an industrial grunge album that Trent Reznor finessed a while ago and then add some fast licks from Bumblefoot.... Slash would be turning in his grave if he had died on stage that time in Brazil (luckily he's not and is still producing great rock music)... unlike the ego, who dares to put GNR's label on this rubbish

This review sounds like Bush trying to explan what the hell went wrong

I'm surprised that there are so many people who are defending Ann Powers and the flowery self-importance that is passing for an album review.

If I have an IQ over 150, which I do, I'm supposed to think this was a masterpiece review? Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.

I'm illiterate because she, to quote Reagan, "uses too big a words" for a simple music review? She can use all the lengthy metaphors and multisyllabic words for her first novel, not in describing someone's comeback album for the mass public.

Because I think she used 500 SAT words too many in reviewing an album, I voted for McCain/Palin? Actually, I voted Obama. I just can't stand pretentiousness, not in my politics and sure as hell not in a music review.

If Ann Powers wants to aspire to be a Faulkner, that's her business. And I'm not saying she needs to say, "I like this. This song is good. But I hated that. That song was bad." She doesn't need to be as simplistic and simple-minded as her arrogant defenders on this blog post think people want her to be. But when she's writing stuff like "cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness" or making references to Wagner, J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles and Odysseus, it's more than a little bit high-handed for a rock & roll CD. She can discuss the CD as if it was a book to review for the NY Times, or she can discuss it in a more conversational manner, talking to us and not over us. But not once did she even give us an opinion to figure out if the CD was worth the time and energy to even listen to over at MySpace.

There are ways to write a music review without pretense getting in the way. AllMusic is a good example of that, one that Ms. Powers might be well served by looking at for ideas on brevity and simplicity. But the inane comments suggesting that because we felt lectured to in a CD review that we're somehow illiterate for not sitting through the pomposity you can cut with a knife? WAY out of line. She's a journalist, not a professor, particularly when she's writing for the LA Times and not the Atlantic Monthly.

Review was mesmerizing. So was the original GNR.
Don't need the review to buy it, jthat's a given] just
curious bout how it was received....
Looks like he's doin' all right....

Wow, that was a whole lotta words that didn't say anthing. Chinese Democracy is a very complex and layered album, and I guess the reviewer wanted to be just as complex in her review! The bottom line is that CD is an ambiticious undertaking that has some incredible songs and a few misfires. It doesn't follow traditional pop rules, and thank goodness for that! We already have paint-by-numbers rock by Nickleback and Co. Axl Rose attempts to give us a grand album in the vein of Use Your Illusion 1&2 and largely succeeds. The guitar work is amazing, Rose sounds great, and I cannot wait to listen to this album again and again. Bravo Axl, Bravo.

We wait this many yrs for arrogant / pompous Axl to put this album out only to be subjected to a more pompous / arrogant "pro-music-critic" who probably spent more yrs putting this ridiculous review together then he with the album.

Ann, you love hearing yourself talk don't you? FYI - look for a new career or just review the damn album either way, good / bad / whatever.

As a fan, I thought there was some great songs on this album with great guitar and vocal work although some of the parts seemed way too over produced. I personally thought "Better" & "There was a Time" were the best songs 1st time through which may change in time. Other opinions?

A man walks into a drug store and asks the pharmacist, "Have you got any analgesic sodium acetyl salicilate?"
Pharmacist: "You mean aspirin?"
Man: "Damn--never could remember that word."

Was the album good or bad….? Hard to say… After finishing the article I come away feeling like Dr. Frasier Crane from “Frasier” and “Cheers” sat me down gave a review on the Album.

 
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