By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 22, 2008
At this point you've probably already listened to, and made up your mind about, "Chinese Democracy," the maledicted multimillion-dollar Axl Rose entitlement program on sale tomorrow at a Best Buy near you and currently available for streaming on Guns N' Roses's MySpace page.
If you haven't, this is what it sounds like: a compound of "Use Your Illusion"-era GN'R, souped up with every conceivable and occasionally dated bit of available studio alchemy and mated with widescreen ballads that suggest early '00s versions of "November Rain," except longer and puffier.
"Chinese Democracy" isn't a masterpiece -- it's more curious than actually great -- but it's never dull, encompassing everything from classic rock to prog rock to actual rock, with nods to "Phantom of the Opera," hip-hop, industrial, Putumayo's world-music compilations and countless other things that should never, ever go together.
In both sound and sentiment it feels hermetically sealed, like it was made by someone who doesn't get out much. Except for a passing reference to the Falun Gong, Rose gives little sign he realizes that life exists outside the "Chinese Democracy" bubble -- that since the release of the last original GN'R disc, five presidential elections, two wars and 9/11 have passed him by.
Although the album includes an atypical number of love songs among its 14 tracks, Rose spends much of "Chinese Democracy" singing about the protracted birth of "Chinese Democracy." This involves lots of railing against an unspecified "you," who has apparently spent the past 15 years attempting to bring Axl down, perhaps while brandishing six-figure bills for studio time. "Don't you try to stop us now/'Cause I just won't let you," he warns on "Scraped," one of the disc's few outright low points.
Everything about "Chinese Democracy" is aggrieved and inflated. It was made with a rotating cast of characters that includes seemingly everyone in Los Angeles except for the actual members of GN'R's classic lineup -- it's like a modern-day, heavy-metal WPA project. But the disc belongs to Rose, and to ProTools. It's been looped, overdubbed and spit-shined beyond what's healthy for a hard-rock album, and its numerous operatic piano ballads are larded with so many sonic extras they threaten to buckle under their own weight. Like Madonna, Rose has always been better at spotting and synthesizing trends than at creating them, but on "Democracy" he's a magpie rooting around in the Museum of '90s Rock Sounds, picking at shiny bits from Soundgarden, Korn and (especially) Nine Inch Nails.
The more times you listen to "Chinese Democracy," the better it sounds, with moments of genuine, back-on-your heels wonderment: The blustery, compact "Better" is as close to golden-era GN'R as "Democracy" gets; "Street of Dreams" is a solid, simple power ballad; the '70s-inspired, funk-meets-Middle Eastern . . . thing called "If the World" is at least uniquely bizarre.
But "Chinese Democracy" begins to eat itself sometime around "Madagascar," which Rose, in a departure from the ever-higher falsetto he uses throughout, sings in a bluesy quaver over what sounds like a string loop, before launching into simultaneous samples from "Cool Hand Luke" and the "I Have a Dream" speech -- which probably shouldn't have been the first stop in iconic speech sampling for someone infamous, as Rose is, for his use of a racial epithet. It's the disc's best evidence that "Chinese Democracy" would have benefited from a steady hand and some adult supervision.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Better," "Street of Dreams," "Chinese Democracy"