Calling the nearest Best Buy on November 22, the day before the release of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, I discovered that the store would not be open at midnight to sell the album at the earliest possible time. This is the most anticipated disc of the year, if not the decade (or, as the Best Buy display claimed, “music’s most anticipated album EVER”), and the only store carrying it can’t even bother to create an event atmosphere for its release? Seventeen years after the last GNR album of original material, and at least 13 years after megalomaniacal frontman Axl Rose (the only remaining original band member) began recording it, Chinese Democracy has arrived, perhaps inevitably, as an anticlimax, even to the company that presumably paid big bucks for the rights to exclusive availability.
For many, Chinese Democracy will be worthless unless it’s the greatest album ever recorded, which it certainly isn’t; for others, its mere existence is enough to grant it instant classic status. The truth is that for all the time Rose spent tweaking these 14 songs (the credits list is akin to an epic poem, in both length and inscrutability), they’re mostly just okay. Had this album come out eight or nine years ago, okay might have been acceptable—Rose is working without past GNR collaborators Slash, Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan, and perhaps still finding his footing as, essentially, a solo artist. But these endlessly tinkered-with tunes just don’t live up to the years of anticipation, and throughout the album there’s the sense that nearly all of them could have been better if Rose had just released them when audiences got their first tastes (some have been in GNR’s live sets since as early as 2001).
The album features one unreservedly great song—“Street of Dreams,” formerly known as “The Blues,” a piano-driven ballad with an epic sound to rival classics like “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry,” probably would have fit seamlessly into one of 1991’s Use Your Illusion albums. Other songs, including the catchy, driving hard rockers “Better” and “I.R.S.,” are solid additions to the GNR canon. But even the best tunes suffer from excessive clutter, with layers upon layers of guitars, synthesized orchestras, drum loops, choirs and keyboards. Sometimes multiple guitar solos compete with one another. The simple, stripped-down blues and punk-rock influences that Slash, Stradlin and McKagan brought to the mix are entirely absent, in favor of grandiose, theatrical arena rock from start to finish, with the occasional electronic flourish.
Lyrically, Rose continues to rail against unseen enemies and lament lost love, and his trademark wail sounds as strong as ever. But everything else about the music has been summarily stripped of personality—there are three guitar virtuosos on the album, but they all sound interchangeable, merely pieces for Rose to plug into his dense, antiseptic framework. The years in the studio have virtually guaranteed that nothing about the final product is bad, but very little about it is exciting or affecting, either. In his seemingly never-ending quest for perfection, Rose has fine-tuned his masterpiece into irrelevance.