Guns N’ Roses
Original release: November 23, 2008
“I sense the smell of retribution in the air
I don’t even understand why the fuck you even care.”
—W. Axl Rose, 1991
Everyone knows the story by now. Seems pointless to even bring it up, except as obligation.
It was supposedly one of rock’s greatest unfinished gems, a sonic Winchester House its megalomaniacal creator kept adding to and throwing money at until it became the stuff of legend. Rumors of its completion circulated every few years. Enough time passed for it to become the punchline to a joke, and eventually the joke got old. Now it’s so obscure that many of us have forgotten what was so damn funny. That’s how long we’ve waited since the announcement of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy and its belated debut this week.
Fifteen years. Jesus God, a cultural eternity. Most of the band’s original fans are now knee-deep in families, with kids the same age they were when Appetite for Destruction hit the streets a lifetime ago. What stunned me as the Democracy buildup swelled was that the faction most stoked about its impending release — which was a certainty now; no turning back — were in elementary school and junior high for GNR’s last full-length (double-length, actually), Use Your Illusion, parts one and two. Axl was their first anti-hero, but sadly, they’d discovered him after his sinewy peak, when he’d become a fat, pampered parody, a pompous crybaby who stomped off stages in snits and fits and invited his critics and even Courtney Love to step outside for questioning his greatness.
There’s no denying that Appetite for Destruction will never be surpassed. It’s the curse of the perfect debut. “Welcome to the Jungle” was such a brazen and confident opening statement that even the less romantically inclined had to admit that the game had changed for good. Butt-rock dominated still, but it did so under GNR’s growing shadow, one the band itself could not escape. After a quickie EP, they needed two whole CDs to make even a dent.
Use Your Illusion was the most anticipated release of 1991. I was part of an all-night congregation camped outside Target, waiting for the morning doors. I fancied myself beyond Axl at this point, but a new Guns N’ Roses seemed too important to ignore. It was too important. It was also a crafty swindle: the two parts were sold separately, at full price. But nobody cared. I kept the longboxes they were packaged in, just to prove I was there. As for 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?”? Well, about 12 years ago I accidentally tipped a full Heineken over the naked disc, splashing its bytes with death, and honestly, it’s an improvement.
Now it’s 2008, and here we are. You, me, Axl, 15 years, 14 studios, $13 million, and enough musicians to fill a guild. And somehow this chaotic brew deserves the Guns N’ Roses brand, which is pretty much what the band is these days: a tenuous board of directors with Axl as CEO for life. Had the original lineup loosed this howler, it’d be laughed out of the blogosphere.
But we critics are a wistful lot, so Chinese Democracy gets a pass just for even existing. The shock of novelty has yet to wear off. (Chuck Klosterman, in the best review of this album, likens it to “reviewing a unicorn.”) Listen closely and you can hear all that time whooshing past, every lost moment, every fleeting fad, every scotched lineup. Its only constant: Axl, fearful Axl, obsessed with perfection to the detriment of a cohesive vision. As a consequence, Chinese Democracy never sounds like a natural progression from Use Your Illusion, but a dusty Jackson Pollock pulled from the basement and completed with a few wild flicks.
We’ll never know what might’ve been. So much of Democracy could be mistaken for quickies dropped as sales incentives onto a hits package that never happened. “Better” burns with Rose’s surprisingly well-oiled thorny screech (some of these masters, of course, are of considerable vintage) and those flogged arpeggios we once called “solos,” but true scorchers are few. He unsuccessfully revisits the lost grandeur of “November Rain” a few times, delivering a mawkish helping of earnest tripe in “Street of Dreams,” replete with dewy-eyed piano chops and the usual swelling orchestra to swoop and dive under pleading guitar. But in the words of one of Axl’s ivory-pounding heroes, who Axl himself quoted in “You Could Be Mine,” we’ve seen that movie too. He repeats the formula in “There Was a Time’s” kitchen-sink overkill and “This I Love,” reassembled from saccharine fragments filched from a dumpster behind Andrew Lloyd Webber’s house. What was once majestic now sounds wretched and empty.
Axl’s gotten older, but he’s still stewing over bygones. There ain’t apology one in “Sorry,” and initially, it’s unclear as to who’s being addressed. “You talk too much/You say I do/Difference is nobody cares about you.” If it’s a woman, that’s some cold shit. But his targets become evident as the song grows more hateful: “You close your eyes/All well and good/I’ll kick your ass like I said that I would.” “You tell them stories/They’d rather believe/Use and confuse them/They’re dumb and naïve.” “Nobody owes you/Not one goddamn thing/You know where to put your/Just shut up and sing.” As blunt as he is, at least he’s a more subtle than in 1991’s “Get in the Ring,” when he goaded magazine writers by name and told them to “suck [his] fucking dick.” Standing curiously at the spectrum’s opposite end is the stunning “Madagascar,” an apparent cheek-turn performed in a ragged, ancient rasp and augmented with speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and samples from Cool Hand Luke: “Forgive them that tear down my soul/Bless them that they might grow old/A dream that’s forgotten may know/That it’s never too late.”
There’s scant evidence that it’s not too late for Axl. “If the World” is a reminder of the sonic explorer he can be when he’s not railing against man and nature. It’s a space-age funk unheard of in metal, and Axl executes it with unbelievable audaciousness. Just because he’s been away doesn’t mean he hasn’t been listening, and learning, and adapting. It could’ve been an embarrassment; instead it’s exciting. Sexy, even. Since he can’t dip vocally into Barry White waters, he and a snaky wikka-wikka guit-trickle (it later turns love-volcano) hover above the planet’s surface, dripping hot butter ’cross its cosmic boobies. Damn, boy!
Unfortunately, the sun has settled over this now-finished Frankenstein pastiche. There are no more myths to peddle; we cannot print the legend. History will not be kind to Chinese Democracy. It will be devoured like the disappointment it is, a used illusion. I gave Axl the first word, so I’ll give him the last:
“What I thought was beautiful don’t live inside of you anymore.”