I was 7 years old when Guns N’ Roses released The Spaghetti Incident? in 1993. That statement is not meant to draw ageist attention to people who are old enough to have purchased the album — 15 years is just a long-ass time to wait for a band to put out an album. A whole generation of kids know of Axl Rose as a concept (as in, the last hero of the hair-metal era) but not as an actual person.
So, how exactly are we supposed to take Chinese Democracy? It’s been a punch line for roughly 10 years (as in, China will actually be a democracy before Chinese Democracy comes out), it may go down as the most expensive album ever made (estimated at $13 million at least), and it has been subjected to more hype than every indie-rock album since 2002, combined. At this point, the music seems secondary to the fact that the album actually exists.
But when you cut through all the back story, the tales of studio breakdowns, the hype, the Dr. Pepper, the sacking of original members and lesser replacements who wear buckets as hats, Chinese Democracy has but one message. And that message is: “Ha. I can’t believe I tricked you into being excited for this shit. Didn’t you listen to Use Your Illusion? I became the messianic artist I always felt I was on that one, and made that album into terrible a mess, but you still couldn’t wait for this. I clearly hate you.”
The only instrument that matters when talking about a Guns N’ Roses album is guitar, and luckily there’s a bunch of them on the album. Chinese Democracy is of a type of rock album they don’t make anymore — one singularly devoted to guitar heroics. They guitars are huge sounding, layered sometimes four or five parts deep (and probably more). First single “Shackler’s Revenge” is the album’s marginal highlight: It builds around ripsaw guitars that ascends to an anthemic solo. Axl and company always had a knack for creating a massive atmosphere (“November Rain,” anyone?), but “Shackler’s” is the only time here that skill is used to good effect.
Chinese Democracy plays like a Frankstein’s monster mash-up of the disparate points that made Guns N’ Roses alluring in the late ‘80s: big, dumb ballads, rip-roaring guitar epics, and divisive lyrics. But Rose is no longer content to spread those charms over the course of 10 tracks. He tries to shoehorn all of those elements into every song, making the album feel like many warmed-over concepts rolled up in one terrible-tasting confection (I would liken it to a deep-fried Twinkie with a corndog in the middle).
“Street of Dreams” is the easiest example. It opens with a tender piano line and Axl’s warbling vocals (which sound vaguely Auto-Tuned) and explodes into a sing-along moment before collapsing back in on itself. It’s the kind of moment a 1991 Guns would have turned into a shirt-removing anthem for the ladies, but it just falls flat when it’s supposed to connect. “If the World” is nearly as tepid. It rides a slithering guitar line to a dumb guitar solo that sounds lifted from Toys in the Attic before hitting a searching chorus from Rose.
The album doesn’t get any worse than the four horseman of “There Was a Time” (a mash-up between a faux-important orchestral arrangement and a seesawing, clench-fisted chorus), “Catcher in the Rye” (a self-absorbed, sub-Elton John ballad), “Scraped” (which defines how your ears will feel after the opening vocal lines), and “Riad N’ the Bedouins” (which seems like it is about the Middle East but seems mostly to be about making Chinese Democracy, with Rose shrieking a lot about his frustrations). Everything sounds huge, but it also feels so neutered, flat and directionless.
There are some moderately enjoyable bits on the album — the glittery guitars on “Sorry,” “Shackler’s” schizophrenic verses, the syncopated drumming on “Prostitute,” the downtrodden feel of “Madagascar.” But there is no truly transcendent moment on Chinese Democracy. Just snippets of decent music mixed in with an astounding amount of over-produced refuse.
Because of the nature of its prolonged delivery and the reams of press connected to it, it’s impossible to view Chinese Democracy as an insular piece of art. But the fact that it took 15 years for the thing to hit shelves makes it painfully clear how bad Chinese Democracy is: Even if it came out in 1996, it would still be self-absorbed, turgid, over-produced and soulless.