Guns N' Roses Long-Awaited Chinese Democracy Reviewed
, November 14th, 2008 22:29
After 17 years of faffing around and insanity, Guns n'Roses Chinese Democracy is almost upon us. Luke Turner gets an early listen, and asks if it was worth the wait.
When Guns N' Roses last released their own material, it was an event of not inconsiderable cultural significance. I remember the excitement at school as everyone rushed out to spend what was to us a small fortune on the two CDs, one red and orange, one black and blue. Stores opened specially for the release of Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991 - these days, only computer games or new IKEA stores warrant that kind of obsession. What's more, you couldn't imagine something so preposterous as that grand statement being allowed in the current state of the music industry. Yet Chinese Democracy has managed to make itself an event, with speculation as to when it might appear dominating the press for years, and Dr Pepper foolhardily offering a can of pop to every American if the record saw light of day in 2008. Other media more pompous than the Quietus (that's you Gigwise and the Guardian Guide) have seen fit to compile crass lists of notable events that have happened since GNR's last release. I had a great shit on March 21st 1998, as it happens, but I don't see what it has to do with this piece. So after all the waiting, the speculation, the hype, the press releases that are more about marketing campaigns than the record, will the new Guns n'Roses album actually be any good? Or will the legendarily nuts Axl Rose, without Slash and co behind him, have disappeared into bloated irrelevance? I headed down to Universal Records in Kensington to find out.
The title track opens with mighty portents of doom, strange sounds, murmuring voices, the promise of something wonderful and terrible coming over the horizon... which, given 17 years and ten minutes hanging around in the lobby of Universal HQ, exactly what we ought to be expecting. But then, instead of the Art of War manifest in song, a rather straight-forward riff takes over, and Axl starts singing about "Iron fists" and "missionaries and visionaries". It's a solid start, nonetheless.
Given the title, I was hoping for a GNR sea shanty about some old salt who devotes his life to ploughing the waves in a sloop in search of his avowed enemy M Le Saucisson who gave him the peg leg back in 1793. Instead, it's a grinding beast that's -hopefully- going to be evidence of an industrial influence throughout the rest of the record; there's a lovely aggressive, snatched-at almost new-wave guitar riff too. Oddly, we get to hear Rose singing in a low register before the nasal whine of yore comes in. It does sound as if his larynx is giving him gip in his advanced years. Is that why it's taken so long? A week of vocal takes then a few months on the lozenges? Still, if this keeps up Chinese Democracy has the potential to be all that the build-up has promised it to be...
Like the first track, this has a diverting opening, percussion and tremulous vocal dancing with bits and pieces of electronica. It follows on well from 'Shackler's Revenge', and gets me hoping that Rose has produced an album that'll justify the $13 million spent... But his voice starts to dominate the track, as the music becomes a murky soup beneath. It doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, this one, so many ideas coming up for air before being subsumed in the maelstrom that nothing of note manages to escape. Goes on a bit too. Uh oh.
Street of Dreams
Dizzy tinkling on the ivories, a sense of imminent bombast... for a split second you could imagine this being on one of the Illusions then... oh dear. When Rose decides to sing in a lower register it just doesn't work, an uncomfortable growl that, when he climbs steeply up to the trademarked screech, shows how the years have been unkind to that famous voice. It's hardly Rose's fault, though, use your nose, throat and chest to sing with rather than your lungs and your singing career is always going to be defeated by strain - Liam Gallagher suffers in the same way. Suddenly the piano disappears under a another indifferent bit of soloing before a marshalling yard's worth of string tracks splurges out over everything. "I don't know what I should do", Rose sings. Which is exactly the problem here, once again too many ideas gilding the lily so heavily that it sinks down into the oomska. You can hear a goodly chunk of those millions of dollar bills burning here.
If The World
Again, this is a track with too many bitty concepts that never mesh, in this case a Spanish guitar trick that's present for the start but never quite knows what to do with itself, save wave a red rag at a bull of hulking guitar before getting trampled under its ungainly hooves. Guns n'Roses made such a unique sound in the early 90s, yet metal has evolved, fractured, and been reborn so many times since then that you get the feeling that Rose doesn't quite know which bits to borrow from, and which to leave on the shelf. The muddle here seems to suggest insecurity, and it's a far cry from the bold, aggressive tones of 'Shackler's Revenge'. The Spanish guitar resurfaces at about 4.22, and you can't help but ask yourself why they bothered having it there at all.
There Was A Time
Here they go AGAIN: a choral start. That promptly disappears until a couple of seconds before the end of the track. You get the feeling that there are stacks and stacks of this sort of thing lying around, brilliant ideas that everyone forgot they'd had until they played them back a few years later, and thought might as well be used somewhere. Rose is singing about lawyers, cocaine and California, which is never going to be of much interest to us humble lay folk. Once more, the production is too confining and this portentous edifice of a track is never allowed to flex and breathe, so different from the old GNR, where brilliant musicians came together to make the ridiculous plausible, leaping across the genres in the process.
Catcher In The Rye
A song inspired by a novel that most read as part of a literate teenage rebellion perhaps suggests that Rose's personality has become trapped in his formative years by massive fame at a tender age, a Peter Pan figure holed up in his mansion since the death of his mother in 1996. Cod psychology aside, this is a generically rocking filler track - and albums this expensive, this long in the making, should not carry filler tracks. Look at the Illusions - two records with nary a duff track.
This is a bit more like it, a big hulking riff and Rose's phrasing pretty interesting over the top of it too, even if it does get a bit uncomfortably nu-metal when he sings "no-one can make you do what you want to". The vocals dominate the track again, and when you consider that Rose is essentially performing a duet between his roar and his screech, it's once more underlined that this is very much a solo project painstakingly pieced together in the studio rather than a breathing, living, organic band.
Another brighter moment, even if I've no idea what that title's all about. Interestingly, some of the music sounds like something the Manic Street Preachers might have concocted had their Guns n'Roses fascination extended into the writing for the Holy Bible .
A ballad where Rose's voice has an effect that makes it sound like it comes from a man with slimy plastic cheeks. Despite the title, it's not a sign of a new humility from Rose, instead he sings that he's sorry for someone or other who's done him wrong. There's finally a stab at an old fashioned GNR bit of soloing, but it sounds like something Slash left back down the back of the sofa in 1989. His fluid, graceful/sleazy and inventive playing is really missed on Chinese Democracy.
Who the hell sings songs about the tax man? "Wouldn't be the first time I've been robbed", Rose complains. It could be a complicated metaphor for stolen time, or something, but I doubt it. It's a pretty decent track... but "pretty decent" isn't good enough when you consider the epic, arrogant, grandiose achievement of the Illusion double whammy. Like so many front men, Rose needs a band around him, to goad him on, to reign him in, to weave louche magic around his mercurial presence. Even the crunching rhythm guitars of yore are in a different league to the generic rock plodding on display here.
The sleeve credits are a great read here, promising samples from Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, Cool Hand Luke, Casualties of Ware, Seven and, er, Mel Gibson's English-bashing historical rewrite Braveheart. Strangely enough, the same "What we've got here is failure to communicate..." sample as the band used in 'Civil War' nearly two decades ago. It's a mistake, putting this muddled commentary on war/conflict/and stuff in direct contrast with the older, far superior track. Musically its more of the same, technically superb in every way, but deathly cold. There just aren't enough personalities on this record.
This I Love
The only track credited to Rose alone, this is a bit of a schlocky ballad with some dodgy rhyming going on, "goodbye/why", "light/bright/night". There are hints of Queen, but not bold enough to lift the track. More light drizzle than 'November Rain'.
"I'm misunderstood / Please be kind / I've done all I could" is Rose's plaintive farewell. Without a lyrics sheet (presumably locked in a Universal vault, a naked intern strapped to a TNT trigger in case anyone tries to breach it) it's hard to pick out exactly what Rose is trying to say, whether he's speaking through the mouth of a practitioner of the world's oldest profession to try and justify what he's been up to in the garden shed for all these years. Yet it's hard not to have the feeling that Chinese Democracy has been too much of a dictatorship to succeed, rigid autocracy conjuring non-existent divisions out of the map as the forces of indifference batter down the citadel. Those tattooed, bouffant rapscallions who drank and fucked and snorted and injected their way through the charts in the late 1980s were a perfect gang, five individuals (of whom Axl Rose was only one) causing a riot both onstage and in the studio. Look back and ask yourself the question, would it have even been possible to top Appetite For Destruction and the mighty Use Your Illusion pairing? Those were records made by certain, special people in a certain time - no amount of money and egotistical insanity could ever come close to replicating them. Crucially, unlike that brilliant run of albums, this is not a pop record. No doubt a sizable chunk of the GNR faithful will feel enfranchised by this, but it's hard not to see Chinese Democracy as a tragic failure. Yet, we have to ask ourselves, could it have been any other way?