I was never really a huge Guns N’ Roses fan, except for maybe a two week period around the time I first heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, which is still one of my favorite 70s pop songs to not come out in the 70s. Still, I spent enough time waiting for My Bloody Valentine to put out the successor to Loveless to develop an appreciation for musicians disappearing off into the woods to labor, forlornly and obsessively, on some envisioned magnum opus that may never come together.
So I felt obligated to check out Chinese Democracy, and my conclusion is that it’s worth checking out. It’s a magnificent folly, where by “folly” I mean something like the Winchester Mystery House. It’s overstuffed, clearly a product of overweening ambition and a prodigious amount of labor, and in the end it’s inevitably unsatisfying. I guess the real news is that Axl Rose was able to produce something listenable and interesting after working and reworking it so many times over the year: the songwriting is uniformly strong and he still has one of the finest singing voices in hard rock.
My favorite thing about it is probably something that drives a number of other people crazy: he’s had a multitude of guitarists work with him, and random little squiggles of soloing pop up all over the whole album. Since many of these ornaments come out of the fevered imagination of Buckethead – in my opinion, one of the best guitarists of all time – they often overshadow the rest of the music, but speaking as someone who was, for years and years, bored to death of guitar solos, I pretty much love how excessive it all is.
Also, Axl still hasn’t gotten over his crush on 70s Paul McCartney, so gratuitous string sections and piano bridges and syrupy, sentimental verses abound. We’re about 10,000 light years from Appetite for Destruction here, but given how this is pretty much an Axl Rose joint, that seems appropriate to me. It’s not 1989 anymore.
What I most emphatically do not love is the mastering of the record. Whomever mastered this thing was clearly thinking of car stereos and iPods, because the dynamics are veritably crushed into a brick wall. It’s weird hearing all this (over)detailed music so brutally flattened, and it definitely sabotages the good-time 70s AOR vibe Rose seems to be reaching for in many places.
Anyway, like a lot of long-delayed projects there’s no way Chinese Democracy can live up to all its crazy hype, but at least it doesn’t suck. One should be thankful for small favors.