So. At last...here 'tis. We've been waiting 15 years for it (the album, not this review*), or else 17 if you want to exclude an album of cover songs (The Spaghetti Incident?, which I don't cuz I liked some of it). Still, either way, I kind of agree with the PR for this album that says things like, "The Most Anticipated Album of All Time!" And for some of us, it has been. That doesn't necessarily mean it's been worth a wait of 15 years. (If saying that twice in one paragraph doesn't make you feel old, consider that Appetite for Destruction was released almost a generation ago...)
In an "April 1st" column written by Chuck Klosterman in 2006 which I have pointed to more than once in the past, he says, "There is really only one way for Chinese Democracy to avoid utter and absolute failure: It needs to be the greatest rock album ever made. (dramatic pause) Chinese Democracy is not the greatest rock album ever made." Even before listening to it, anyone and everyone knew there was absolutely no way it would be - could be - the greatest rock album ever made. Not even if this was a true GNR album - meaning with a complete original GNR lineup, not Axl and a cast of scores - could it be the greatest ever.
I say it's been a wait of 15 years only "for some of us" because anyone who has been unable to wait could have heard most of the album in recent years via countless leaks, or at least tracks that were somewhat close to the final versions. One of the complaints I don't get at all is crabbing about how much of the album was the same as the contraband tracks that have been out there for a decade. You want it to be completely new stuff? Then don't listen to the leaks! I managed to remain master of my domain for the entire 15 years! So for me, it was 14 totally new tracks that I had never heard until I freed the disc from the jewel case.
So, it's not the greatest album ever. Is it merely a great GNR album then? No, not that either, because it really isn't a GNR album. Not just because it has only AXL. Or Axl and Dizzy Reed if you want to count him, too. (I do, since he's stuck with Axl all this time and earned his stripes, and I liked his great work on the UYI albums.)
No, it's also not a GNR album because it doesn't even sound like a GNR album. But I have no issue with Axl calling it that even if it is just him & Dizzy and a whole slew of other people. I figure he's been keeping the flame of the GNR madness and mystique going this long, it SHOULD be called a GNR album even if it doesn't sound like one.
I also don't get people slagging on this album because of all kinds of other things that have nothing to do with the music, such as Axl's looks or his cornrows, or comparing it to Velvet Revolver or who knows what else. But then, I've always evaluated the music on the merits of...the music. So what does it sound like then?
IMHO, I think it sounds great. By now, it shouldn't sound like Use Your Illusion III. Who the hell wants that? We have Appetite, it was one of the greatest hard rock albums ever, and there's no need to try and go anywhere near recreating that. All that was so "last century" and it's time to move on. So he did.
Who knows exactly why Axl made the choices he did? I'm not even sure Axl himself knows. I myself would have liked to have heard some of Brian May's contributions, but what do I know? May not have fit**. On the other hand, some of these songs sound kind of like Axl STILL couldn't make up his mind after all this time about which pieces to use and decided, "Let's just use all of the guitar parts!"
The vocals are everything I hoped they would be. I have never seen GNR live, either back in the day or in recent years, so I don't know whether he can still deliver live, but it all still sounds as wild and acidic and sarcastic and defiant as ever, and the lyrics are the scathing screeds he's so suited to writing and delivering.
Here, for what they're worth by now †, are my thoughts on my favorite tracks from this album:
Chinese Democracy: This album couldn't have opened any better! After a slow, full-minute build, one lone guitar - sounding like it's being hammered from on high, swirled in echo - announces that "it's...finally...here!" A fine prelude to the shrieking entrance of the classic, unmistakable Axl voice full of spite and power. How ya like the stuttering, bubbling work of Buckethead on this? I like the bang on the final "out of...time!"
"'Cause it would take a lot more hate than you /
To end the fascination /
Even with an iron fist /
More than you got to rule the nation /
When all I've got is precious time"
(The album and this title track are certainly hitting all the right nerves!)
Better: I like the bizzaro voice that opens this, though I hated it at first. This one wouldn't sound entirely out of place on UYI-I, though I find Buckethead's parts a bit distracting on this.
Best lyric - and couldn't be sung better by anybody else, and better than the way Axl sings it:
"I never wanted you to be so full of anger /
I never wanted you to be somebody else /
I never wanted you to be someone afraid to know themselves /
I only wanted you to see things for yourself"
There Was a Time: If you can get through the first two-and-a-half minutes of this, it's richly rewarding from that point on. It's really the guitar work that makes this track, though I could do with a little bit less bleeping-and-blooping from Buckethead at that one point. If there was one - and likely, at most only one - song on this album where Slash was meant to be, it's this one. But I'm sure I'll go to my grave still harboring a fantasy of hearing Axl and Slash do this one together.
Sorry: This one is my favorite (thus its selection for the SotD...) Even - no, especially - the line "But I don't want to do it" sung in the "Mexican vampire accent" (see real Klosterman review via link below). And also the way he leans into "I'm not cavin' in" This song is the best example of how Axl could write such scathing passive-aggressive lyrics and deliver them with such venom, and the music is suitable in the way it's almost understated.
"You've got all the answers /
You know everything /
Why nobody asked you /
Is a mystery to me"
Madagascar: How could "The Epic" not be in my Top 5 from the album? I'm sure plenty of people don't like the brass. Tough. I do. And I like the sampling. And I find it a happy coincidence that I realize I am finally publishing this, my own Chinese Democracy, in the night between MLK Day and Obama's inauguration. Though I may be very late and sometimes inexplicably absent, synchronicity still keeps working.
"Oh, I... /
Forgive them that tear down my soul /
And bless them that they might grow old /
And free them so that they may know /
That it's never too late"
So...final verdict: I like it. A LOT. (71.4% RDF, with at least three infrared dots and maybe more in time.) I liked Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, but not all of the tracks from either of them, especially the first one. It took some time for me to like as many of them as I do now. But this album, I like a higher percentage of the tracks sooner. (This scored a higher RDF than the UYI albums, either combined or separately - we'll get to those when we get to the AotY Award for 1991.)
Was it worth a 15-year wait? Well, maybe not. But it's not like I haven't had plenty of other music to serve as a soundtrack to all the other things I've had to do with my life the last 15 years, and now I'm happy to add this to it.
Most of all: did it fulfill expectations? Did it even come near matching the impossible-to-match hype? No. But yet, it's actually not too far off. And you know what? If there was anyone‡ that could come near to matching impossible-to-match hype, especially after all this time, it's Axl.
\m/ (ò_ó) \m/
*For a whole variety of reasons/excuses that I have lamented apologetically elsewhere, I've been inconsistent with my SotD Journal going back to late summer, and then basically vanished the last two months since the most recent SotD entry. (Not for lack of desire, just a mixture of priorities and circumstances.) Well then, as I try to put myself back on track for 2009 leading up to the two-year anniversary of the SotD, consider this post/review my own Chinese Democracy (which some of you cheekily have!). It's no longer useful, because anyone who wanted to hear even the official disc has had two months to do so now, and untold amounts of reviews have been written elsewhere. But this is my take for the record, and besides, what other album would I possibly choose a song from for the SotD for November 23, 2008?
**Actually, it's better Axl didn't include what he wanted to include, since it was very bizarre: "Brian's solo itself is a personal fave of mine and I really couldn't understand, as he's such a rock legend, why it wasn't openly appreciated more at the time...It's entirely constructed from edits based around one specific note Brian hit in a throwaway take." (?!?! Well, duh! Yeah, why wouldn't Brian appreciate that?!) See here...scroll down to the question on "Catcher N' the Rye"
†This long delay in getting these thoughts posted up has proven beneficial in a way, because it's given me the time to read some of the other reviews that are out there. There's probably been more written about this album than any other for 2008, except for maybe Death Magnetic, and those two albums together probably generated more press/media/blogorrhea than everything else released last year, and certainly gave everyone more to chew on than any albums released in the last several. The only other album that has generated this much press recently was perhaps Radiohead's In Rainbows, and half of that was only interested in the "pay what you like" experiment, not the music itself. For reference then, here are those reviews which I found most interesting:
Chuck Klosterman reviews Chinese Democracy: I eagerly anticipated Chuck's "real" review more than any other ever since reading that pre-review almost three years ago. If you only read one of these, and especially if you pooh-pooh my thoughts, at least read this one. It most accurately captures how I feel about this thing.
David Fricke: I know it's published in RS, but I would read Fricke's reviews if they were sent to me on a roll of toilet paper. He's my favorite rock critic. See for yourself why.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine of allmusic: "Axl's intent is oddly simple: he sees GNR not as a gutter-rock band but as a pomp-rock vehicle for him to lash out against all those who don't trust him, whether it's failed friends, lapsed fans, ex-lovers, former managers, fired bandmates, or rock critics. Chinese Democracy is the best articulation of this megalomania as could be possible, so the only thing to quibble about is his execution, which occasionally is perplexing..."
‡Death Magnetic may or not be the better of the two behemoth releases of 2008, and it certainly wins on a sales basis. (My review of DM is here, but you'll have to stay tuned for my AotY Award for 2008 to get my comparative take. It's a weird twist of the calendar that they're going head-to-head again *17* years later...)
But even though everyone was demanding everything from Metallica, few were expecting much of anything for an entirely different reason than people were skeptical of Axl. With Metallica - especially after St. Anger and Some Kind of Monster - many figured Metallica couldn't deliver because they no longer had it in them to do what it took, while with Axl, I think many/most figured he DID have it in him and could, but for whatever reason, wouldn't. Mostly because he would never be able to get to exactly what he wanted and was incapable of getting it all out. Says Klosterman, "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...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."
Anyway, as disparate as the record may be, I don't hear/read of anyone complaining about its sound, and apparently the recording sessions went well...it's just that there were so MANY of them.