Chuck Klosterman reviews Chinese Democracy
Guest reviewer Chuck Klosterman is the author of five books, including Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural North Dakota and the new novel Downtown Owl. There is no one in the world more qualified to review the exhaustingly anticipated new Guns N' Roses album than he is.
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I've been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I've thought about this record more than I've thought about China, and maybe as much as I've thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can't psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.
Here are the simple things about Chinese Democracy: Three of the songs are astonishing. Four or five others are very good. The vocals are brilliantly recorded, and the guitar playing is (generally) more interesting than the guitar playing on the Use Your Illusion albums. Axl Rose made some curious (and absolutely unnecessary) decisions throughout the assembly of this project, but that works to his advantage as often as it detracts from the larger experience. So: Chinese Democracy is good. Under any halfway normal circumstance, I would give it an A.
But nothing about these circumstances is normal.
For one thing, Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that. But the more meaningful reason Chinese Democracy is abnormal is because of a) the motives of its maker, and b) how those motives embargoed what the definitive product eventually became. The explanation as to why Chinese Democracy took so long to complete is not simply because Axl Rose is an insecure perfectionist; it's because Axl Rose self-identifies as a serious, unnatural artist. He can't stop himself from anticipating every possible reaction and interpretation of his work. I suspect he cares less about the degree to which people like his music, and more about how it is taken, regardless of the listener's ultimate judgment. This is why he was so paralyzed by the construction of Chinese Democracy—he can't write or record anything without obsessing over how it will be received, both by a) the people who think he's an unadulterated genius, and b) the people who think he's little more than a richer, red-haired Stephen Pearcy. All of those disparate opinions have identical value to him. So I will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Axl Rose would hope, and that makes it significantly less simple. At this juncture in history, rocking is not enough.
The weirdest (yet more predictable) aspect of Chinese Democracy is the way 60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself. The rest of the vocal material tends to suggest some kind of abstract regret over an undefined romantic relationship punctuated by betrayal, but that might just be the way all hard-rock songs seem when the singer plays a lot of piano and only uses pronouns. The craziest track, "Sorry," resembles spooky Pink Floyd and is probably directed toward former GNR drummer Steven Adler, although I suppose it might be about Slash or Stephanie Seymour or David Geffen. It could even be about Jon Pareles, for all I fucking know—Axl's enemy list is pretty Nixonian at this point. The most uplifting songs are "Street Of Dreams" (a leaked song previously titled "The Blues") and the exceptionally satisfying "Catcher In The Rye" (a softer, more sophisticated re-working of "Yesterdays" that occupies a conceptual self-awareness in the vein of Elton John or mid-period Queen). The fragile ballad "This I Love" is sad, melodramatic, and pleasurably traditional. There are many moments where it's impossible to tell who Axl is talking to, so it feels like he's talking to himself (and inevitably about himself). There's not much cogent storytelling, but it's linear and compelling. The best description of the overall literary quality of the lyrics would probably be "effectively narcissistic."
As for the music—well, that's actually much better than anticipated. It doesn't sound dated or faux-industrial, and the guitar shredding that made the final version (which I'm assuming is still predominantly Buckethead) is alien and perverse. A song like "Shackler's Revenge" is initially average, until you get to the solo—then it becomes the sonic equivalent of a Russian robot wrestling a reticulating python. Whenever people lament the dissolution of the original Guns N' Roses, the person they always focus on is Slash, and that makes sense. (His unrushed blues metal was the group's musical vortex.) But it's actually better that Slash is not on this album. What's cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can't imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff. The GNR members Rose misses more are Izzy Stradlin (who effortlessly wrote or co-wrote many of the band's most memorable tunes) and Duff McKagan, the underappreciated bassist who made Appetite For Destruction so devastating. Because McKagan worked in numerous Seattle-based bands before joining Guns N' Roses, he became the de facto arranger for many of those pre-Appetite tracks, and his philosophy was always to take the path of least resistance. He pushed the songs in whatever direction felt most organic. But Rose is the complete opposite. He takes the path of most resistance. Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N' Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N' Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B; bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he's able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on "I.R.S.," the album's two strongest rock cuts), it's sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive. The soaring vocals crush everything. But sometimes Chinese Democracy suffers from the same inescapable problem that paralyzed proto-epics like "Estranged" and "November Rain": It's as if Axl is desperately trying to get some unmakeable dream song from inside his skull onto the CD, and the result is an overstuffed maelstrom that makes all the punk dolts scoff. His ambition is noble, yet wildly unrealistic. It's like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.
Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, "What was Axl doing here?" but "What did Axl think he was doing here?" The tune "If The World" sounds like it should be the theme to a Roger Moore-era James Bond movie, all the way down to the title. On "Scraped," there's a vocal bridge that sounds strikingly similar to a vocal bridge from the 1990 Extreme song "Get The Funk Out." On the aforementioned "Sorry," Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line ("But I don't want to do it") in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there's gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the "Sorry" vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, "You know, I've weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I'm going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human." Often, I don't even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.
On "Madagascar," he samples MLK (possible restitution for "One In A Million"?) and (for the second time in his career) the movie Cool Hand Luke. Considering that the only people who will care about Rose's preoccupation with Cool Hand Luke are those already obsessed with his iconography, the doomed messianic message of that film must deeply (and predictably) resonate with his very being. But how does that contribute to "Madagascar," a meteorological metaphor about all those unnamed people who wanted to stop him from making Chinese Democracy in the insane manner he saw fit? Sometimes listening to this album feels like watching the final five minutes of the Sopranos finale. There's no acceptable answer to these types of hypotheticals.
Still, I find myself impressed by how close Chinese Democracy comes to fulfilling the absurdly impossible expectation it self-generated, and I not-so-secretly wish this had actually been a triple album. I've maintained a decent living by making easy jokes about Axl Rose for the past 10 years, but what's the final truth? The final truth is this: He makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end. Axl Rose put so much time and effort into proving that he was super-talented that the rest of humanity forgot he always had been. And that will hurt him. This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.