Why Chinese Democracy's Fine Print Is Way More Fun Than the Record Itself

Axl Rose amuses his delusion

We can all agree that Sunday's eons-delayed, punchline-defying, free-Dr.-Pepper-triggering release of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy marks the death of something—some combination of the music industry, "the album" as a unit of cultural import, old-guard rock stardom, irony, sincerity, free-market capitalism, hip-hop, the spread offense, and neo-conservatism. Regardless, I feel comfortable stating that it's the last record I will ever buy just to read the liner notes. Holy shit. Do pop into Best Buy sometime this week and have a gander.

(Deep breath.)

Fourteen studios in four cities. Twenty-two assistant engineers. Eight folks under the heading "Additional Pro Tools." Six more under "Logic." The phrase "initial production" re-occurring. Eleven musicians get their own personal thank-you lists; deranged mastermind Axl Rose's requires nearly three columns of tiny-ass type. (Notable names: Mickey Rourke, Donatella Versace, Izzy Stradlin.) And these are just full-album credits; all 14 songs get their own personal bibliography: "There Was a Time" has six guitarists (five is more common) and five orchestral arrangers (Axl is cited as both); "Madagascar" boasts not just French horns but synth French horns, plus clips from two Martin Luther King speeches and dialogue from Mississippi Burning, Cool Hand Luke, Braveheart, Casualties of War, and Seven. Full lyric sheet, too: Within the first minute of histrionic piano ballad "This I Love," Axl rhymes why, goodbye, I, eyes, wise, try, inside, deny, die, mine, inside, why, goodbye, inside, light, bright, night, and deny.

I look forward to re-reading these liners in Best Music Writing 2009; you will greatly prefer them, at least initially, to Chinese Democracy itself. For what has really died here is the word overproduced. It will no longer suffice. So dense, so suffocating, so paranoid-android synthetic, so ludicrously engorged is Axl's magnum opus that you will have absolutely no problem believing it took dozens of people millions of dollars and nearly two decades to complete it. This is the mythical burrito microwaved by God that's so hot, God himself cannot eat it. Upon first, second, third, quite possibly tenth listen, it's a deeply unpleasant experience. You'll warm up to it. Maybe.

Cling to Axl's voice. He's still got it, that deranged shriek-to-moan bazooka of lust, contempt, pathos, and megalomania that made us love him—and a full stable of jilted bandmates, exasperated label minders, and overworked lawyers tolerate him—in the first place. And though he frequently sounds like a cruise-ship Phantom of the Opera parody of himself, this record gets better the more ridiculous and self-absorbed it gets. Daffy guitar solos by gentlemen named Buckethead and Bumblefoot enliven fairly turgid compu-thrash riff-rockers; eye-rolling piss-and-moan heartbreak dirges ("You're the only one I have ever loved that has ever loved me," etc.) are mercifully eclipsed by distinctly meta I-did-it-my-way anthems of defiance. Axl toys with several metaphors ("Blame it on the Falun Gong," advises the title track) to describe the titanic improbability of this album's mere existence, often abandoning them in mid-sentence at his whim:

Riad and the Bedouins

Had a plan and thought they'd win

But I don't give a fuck 'bout them

'Cause I AM CRAZY

Indeed, the best one-line summation of Chinese Democracy is "If I thought that I was crazy/Then I guess I'd have more fun," thesis of the oddly exuberant piano-rocker "Catcher in the Rye" (seriously, it sounds like Journey). "Madagascar," the mournful MLK/Cool Hand Luke one, is meant to be the climax, with a luscious French-horn/synth-French-horn bed worthy of a Björk B-side, and though things have gotten way, way, way out of hand by the time we're in full-blown arena-rock mastadon-stomp mode and Axl is implicitly equating his stubborn purity of vision to the civil rights movement, the sheer audacity gives you hope. That you can now purchase and listen to this album—that heartless major corporations patiently waited years (1.5 decades!) for its fruition—makes a better case for the undiminished possibility of the American Dream than the election of Barack Obama. The subtext imbues otherwise pedestrian tunes with a gleeful self-help delight: "Scraped" bashes around gracelessly but means what it fuckin' says when it says "You're stronger than the lies that they tell you" and "Nothing's impossible/I am inconquerable." That's not a word; it is now.

Again: Three full listens and/or four full hours, minimum, before you reach this state of admiration. Inevitably, Chinese Democracy sounds like too many cooks following way too many recipes. Totally rad finger-tapped wankery aside, "Shackler's Revenge" is a charmless, grating butt-rock dud infinitely more tolerable as a Guitar Hero download (a dismaying recent trend). For fans of second-tier, vaguely funky mid-'90s industrial, "If the World" is straight-up God Lives Underwater. And "Sorry" is a plodding, sub-Daughtry knuckle-dragger wherein Axl accosts one of his myriad enemies (whether his foe wears a suit or leather pants and a top hat goes unspecified) with deeply lame gibes like "You talk too much/You say I do/Difference is nobody cares about you" and "You close your eyes/All well and good/I'll kick your ass like I said that I would." You can fall in love with the idea of this album and eventually teach yourself to love the album itself, but nothing packs a tenth the vitality and exhilaration of, oh, let's say, "It's So Easy."

God, "It's So Easy." You put on Appetite for Destruction (in, like, 1987), cranked up "Welcome to the Jungle," and believed that no finer specimen of pure, vicious, exhilarating rock-'n'-roll hedonism could ever exist, and then came track two: "It's So Easy." It's an objectively perfect song, and though objectively perfect songs aren't effortless, per se, they sound that way—the effort, the craft, the forethought, the money, the time, and the personnel they require is the least interesting and prominent thing about them. Chinese Democracy is the inverse: a hilariously painstaking attempt to synthesize that lightning, a lost cause taken to delirious extremes, a fascinating catastrophe inspiring equal parts awe and pity. A would-be Hollywood blockbuster upstaged by its own credits.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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