is such an ambitious, unusual album that the easiest way to categorize it would be simply to call it Use Your Illusion III
. The first new Guns N’ Roses
album since 1991’s Use Your Illusion I
, which loudly announced frontman Axl Rose’s desire to break free of hard rock’s strictures, Chinese Democracy
can’t possibly live up to the pent-up expectations of loyal fans. But with Rose the only remaining founding member of the band, the album continues the Illusion
records’ quest to examine every inch of the singer’s tortured psyche. Chinese Democracy
doesn’t all work, but it’s sure entertaining.
'Chinese Democracy' Offers a Snapshot of Rose's Soul
Looking back on Guns N’ Roses’ career, the band has really been two bands. The first is the GNR of Appetite for Destruction
with its tight, focused collection of hard rock songs that articulated pain and hope in equal measure. The second is the GNR of the Use Your Illusion
albums with their sprawling tunes that ran the gamut of rock styles but centered on Axl Rose’s growing paranoia and spiritual desolation. The rest of the band objected to some of the wild sonic digressions of the Illusion
records, and infighting eventually split the group apart. Left to his own devices, Rose hired musicians to work on the songs for Chinese Democracy
, an album that has been rumored to come out on so many different occasions that the endless delays prompted many to wonder if it would ever be released. Now that it’s here, it’s clear that Rose wanted to continue the Illusion
records’ musical adventurousness and personal self-exploration. Though it’s labeled as a Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy
is definitely the heart and soul of Rose.
Defiantly Out of Step With the Times
Despite the obvious similarities, Chinese Democracy isn’t a carbon copy of the Illusion albums. Piano-plus-strings tracks like “Street of Dreams” might recall “Breakdown” from Illusion II or “November Rain” from Illusion I, but the Democracy material has enough surprises to keep it sounding fresh. The basic dramatic structure of these songs brings to mind Rose’s contributions to the ’91 double album – in other words, you’re not going to hear much of the classic-rock sounds that former Guns N’ Roses guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin preferred. Consequently, the idiosyncratic, experimental rush of Chinese Democracy feels completely anachronistic, out of step with any of 2008’s popular rock trends. That’s a good and bad thing – the album is refreshingly different and yet also very nostalgic. But even the weakest tunes here don’t feel like self-conscious attempts to jump on any particular musical bandwagons. Even if you can’t stand his indulgences, Rose remains very much his own man.
Turning Angst Into Memorable Music
Those who were hoping that Rose’s personal life had improved since the Illusion discs will be disappointed to learn that he’s got a new set of complaints on Chinese Democracy. Again and again, relationships fall apart and enemies antagonize him. But while Rose’s whining can grate, his unhappiness powers his muse, inspiring some of the strongest material. “I.R.S.” is a soaring, angry song about a woman who’s left him behind. And on the opening title track, which kick-starts the album on a fiery note, Rose takes on China’s entire Communist Party. Chinese Democracy works best when he manages to make his angst compelling and universal, translating his discontentment into music the rest of us can hook into.
An Open Letter to a Lover ... or the Fans? Chinese Democracy cuts deepest in some of its most emotionally naked moments. The sweeping arena-worthy ballad “Prostitute” talks frankly about a codependent relationship. What’s interesting is that the lyrics about fortune and fame could be signaling that Rose isn’t singing to a lover but, rather, his fans who put demands on him. And on “If the World,” Rose wonders how love can last – of course, it could also be interpreted as his way of addressing his supporters who have stuck by him this long. No matter who he’s addressing in these songs, Rose’s patented wail remains remarkably able to articulate desperate need, even if his voice has lost some of its suppleness over the years.
Guns N' Roses' 'Chinese Democracy' - Bottom Line
From the straight-ahead hard rock of the title track to the tricky amalgam of famous sound bites and orchestral flourishes on “Madagascar,” Chinese Democracy
keeps you guessing. Even misfires like “Riad N' the Bedouins” are oddly interesting simply because they never go down conventional sonic paths. You could argue that the amount of time it took Axl to release Chinese Democracy
allowed these songs to develop and grow. Maybe, but as intriguing as the album is, it doesn’t match the brilliance of the band’s earlier records. The Guns N’ Roses we once loved is probably gone forever – and with it, the startling danger and musicianship that helped make Axl Rose a superstar. This new version of Guns N’ Roses has its rewards, but it is unquestionably a different entity. Hopefully we won’t have to have wait another 17 years for its next offering.
Best 'Chinese Democracy' Tracks:
“Street of Dreams”
“If the World”
Release date – November 23, 2008