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“Chinese Democracy” by Guns n’ Roses: hype, nostalgia, leather pants

I like the music of the people I find interesting. It’s very important to understand that I don’t have to like or even respect a person to find them utterly fascinating. Maybe that’s why bands like Radiohead and U2 bore the living piss out of me: you know exactly what they’re going to do.

Radiohead will continue being the famous group that “doesn’t care about their fame.” No, they’re far too busy crafting elaborate, metaphor-based political commentary and cramming into the most depressing songs possible. Listening to Radiohead is like being at a self-consciously hip funeral.

And U2 will always be the smug, self-appointed “Greatest Band in the Universe.” And it will consist of Bono’s tired voice, Bono’s stupid glasses, and Bono’s searing need to be put in the same category as the Beatles. Oh, and maybe some other band members (1).

The artists that interest me are the ones that really mean it. That “it” differs from person to person, of course:

For Freddy Mercury, it was about being an artistic sensation and giving meaning to the word “fabulous,” so that all the “cosmopolitan” women and self-effacing gay men that came after him could have something to run into the ground. For Lupe Fiasco, it’s about providing fantastical commentary on a skewed and absurd world – or, in simpler terms, being a Nas that you can listen to without falling into a black depression. For DMX, “it” means having the instincts, testosterone, and intelligence of an especially angry Rottweiler. He will go to great lengths to tear apart raw steak, eat your face, or hump your leg because he thinks it might be in heat – and in this sense, he’s one of the most sincere men alive.

And, of course, there was always Axl Rose.

I don’t really know what Axl Rose’s driving motivation was; I don’t think anybody, including Axl himself, really did. Sometimes he would make vague socio-political statements, and he would often wear controversial clothing. But honestly, I think he was just out hoping that he’d get to punch somebody in the face.

He just seemed to want some conflict, some ass to kick, if you will. He was in a feud with Kurt Cobain, for God’s sake! There was never any point in fighting with Kurt; at his best, he’d bleed on you and give you Hep A. At worst, Kurt would cry. The man was simply too sad for anybody with any sense of self-restraint to get mad at. But lack of self-restraint was possibly Axl’s greatest strength.

If I had to give a synopsis of his life’s philosophy, it would be that “if you rock hard enough, you don’t have to make sense.” And upon listening to Use Your Illusion I & II, you have to admit… that does sort of make sense. Axl might not have known what he meant, per se, but in those albums, he meant the shit out of it.

When he split with Slash, he was obviously very serious about whatever idiotic reasons he might have had for it. You see, anybody else even slightly familiar with rock and roll would sacrifice their best friend’s right nut to keep Slash in the band (2). Looking at his career, Axl meant every last senseless thing he did, right down to wearing combat boots and American flag-themed hot pants.

What I’m getting at is that I know that Guns ‘N Roses might not be the world’s smartest, or most avant garde band, but I love them anyway for their mind-boggling, savage sincerity.

So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that Chinese Democracy,their newest album, might no longer be the elusive Sasquatch of the music world. After 14 years and roughly $13 million, C.D. has finally been released. Of course, this immediately raises an important question:

Is it bad? Ok, just how bad is it? Like, really bad?

And the answer is:

Don’t be such a pessimist.

One of the most charming things about Axl Rose is his ability to sound as though somebody is standing on his nuts; I would venture so far as to say that his career has been significantly enhanced by this particular talent. And for all the concerned GnR fans out there, I am happy to report that this has not changed. It still definitely sounds as though somebody is performing a ceilidh on Axl’s crotch, and that he is pissed about it.

The first time he hits that wailing high note, it takes you right back to the days of listening to “Paradise City” on the walkman your teacher was waiting to confiscate, just so that you’d get back learning stupid basic algebra. C.D., from what I can tell, has every last beloved variant of Axl on display: wailing Axl; growling, post-pubescent Axl; crooning, sleep-with-your-aunt Axl; and so on.

The trip down memory lane is great, but things don’t stop there. This album was meant to be performed live. GnR recently released the title track on the internet, and anybody that hears it will have to agree that this song was meant purely for getting a stadium full of women to hurl their tops at the stage. It’s hard not to imagine the beginning chords slashing through the night at Wembley – isn’t that what the place was built for?

And that isn’t the only de-topping track on the album; “Riad N’ the Bedouins” and “Better,” from what I can tell, are also songs specifically designed to rock hard enough make you soil not only your own pants, but also those of the people next to you.

So clearly, there’s plenty of good stuff. As for the negatives, well… it’s absolutely impossible for any album to live up to 14 years of secrecy and hype. Track 5 could reveal what really happened on the grassy knoll, and people would still scoff. Chinese Democracy was supposed to be the magnum opus of a living rock god, and while it’s certainly a pretty fun listen, it’s also just an album.

It doesn’t explain the secrets of the universe, or bizarrely sync up with any movies (that I know of). It won’t ever be likened to burning bushes like The White Album, 40 Licks, or even the first Guns ‘N Roses albums.

Part of the problem is that all of those albums put forth original material that literally made people sit back and think, “Oh, this is why music hasn’t been good enough till now.” Those albums, and others like them, are quantum leaps in the evolution of rock. Chinese Democracy, however, doesn’t make that sort of progress. It’s pretty damn fun, but it isn’t exactly interesting – unless, of course, you’re me, and you wonder actively about things like who would win in a fight between Buckethead and Ace Frehley (3). If that’s the case, then the minutiae and nostalgia of this album should keep you pretty occupied.

Even if you are as emotionally crippled as I am, you won’t be able to avoid the fact that GnR has clearly been taking some lessons and ideas from other bands. It’s not that the GnR sound has changed; a lot of these songs reminded me of other groups. “IRS” starts out sounding as though Axl has been kidnapped by Lynyrd Skynrd. While “Better” quickly picks up the pace, it begins by sounding as though all the members of Orgy had quit their various jobs at grocery stores and laundromats for an ill-fated, sexually deviant reunion tour. And For the first 40 seconds, I honestly thought that “Catcher in the Rye” was a Ben Folds song that had somehow gotten mixed in by mistake (4).

This album isn’t earth-shaking, but it’s pretty fun. And it shows some prosaic, predictable progress, which, frankly, might be the problem. It doesn’t have the fire, pointless anger, or shameless hedonism of its predecessors. Unfortunately, this sort of maturation is probably inevitable over the course of a decade. Ultimately, this album showcases perfectly what Axl has been up to for the last few years: growing up – sort of (5).

If he was a rebellious youth and a rock genius, he’s now a slightly burned-out rebellious adult and a rock professor at a college somewhere in the north east. That’s nice, in its own way, and it even makes for some pretty sweet songs. But it isn’t the stuff of great albums.

Great albums, you see, almost always come in a band’s earlier years. I believe that they come from people who mean it, who don’t know any better, and who – hopefully – refuse to learn. Unfortunately, as time goes on, you can’t help but learn something. In a way, it’s really too bad.

1. Who, if they had any respect for themselves, would also all change their names to Bono. Duh.
2. It’s the deal I would strike, anyway. And if your best friend is a girl, this is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
3. Buckethead for the win. Frehley paints stars around his eyes, whereas Buckethead literally has a bucket on his head. You look at him and think “My God, he’s capable of anything.”
4. Luckily, after that, master guitarist Brian May simply does whatever he pleases, and takes us all for a ride that’s part-vintage Queen and part-“Heroin seems kind of cool.”
5. As much of a grown up as you can be while wearing leather pants and hanging out with Sebastian Bach.

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Joe Sapien

Joe Sapien is a regular columnist. He is currently floundering through grad school and running up debt. He never got to be a bully as a child, but he would have been pretty good at it.

2 thoughts on ““Chinese Democracy” by Guns n’ Roses: hype, nostalgia, leather pants

  1. I may have been the only person who cares to much about music that stopped caring about this album. The story is interesting because Axl is clearly insane, but honestly when the album came out I just downloaded it and listen to it, I don’t think i had a lot of “baggage” attached to it (but then, how on Earth could I really know that?)

    Anyway, I thought the album was… disjointed, which is kind of my nice way of saying, “below average.”

    Anyway, this is a great review, but I disagree that all “great” albums come early in an artist’s career. Jeff Tweedy, Craig Finn, and Ryan Adam’s made their albums for the ages almost a decade into their careers (albeit after they left their earlier bands). James Murphy, better known as LCD Soundsystem, made his best album (and one of the best albums of the last decade, more than 10 years into his own career. Conor Oberst, Fugazi, The Flaming Lips, the remnants of Joy Division…. the list of epic albums from groups well past their “prime” is pretty solidly long.

    Sadly, “Chinese Democracy” isn’t one of them.

    Anyway, good review. Cheers.

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