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It’s that time again. It’s not a regular event or anything, but it seems to happen every three years or so: Axl Rose sticks his head out of his LA hermit-mansion and promises the world some new material. He dropped “Oh My God” on the End of Days soundtrack in 1999, he turned up on the MTV Awards and went on half a tour before canceling the other half in 2002, and now he’s spent the last couple of months engaged in such a weird public tease-fest that anyone who still cares is simultaneously feverishly anticipating and dreading whatever might come next. Axl first turned up at, of all things, a Korn tour-announcement party in January, promising that Chinese Democracy would finally drop this year. Last week, he came to New York to celebrate his 44th birthday, and he reportedly offered the owner of Stereo a private listening session if he’d let Axl’s friends into the club at 5:30 a.m. And this week, Mets catcher Mike Piazza leaked three new songs to Q104.3, which means they’re all over the internet right now and you probably already knew everything in this paragraph. And now the band has been booked at five different European festivals this summer, and there’s some speculation that at least one of them will feature some variation on the classic-era GNR lineup rather than whatever collection of jokers Axl has on retainer this week. It’s enough to make your head spin. (You can find good summaries here and here.)
Not that anyone necessarily needs this advice, but we really, really shouldn’t get our hopes up for anything good coming out of this. The MTV Awards appearance is the last experience most of us had with the band, and it didn’t exactly leave a great aftertaste: Axl’s ravaged voice and hockey jersey and braids and weirdly bloated neck, some goth guys, confetti, Buckethead. Still, I had tickets to their reunion show in DC that year; they cancelled the tour the night before the show after no-showing in Philadelphia and provoking a riot, and I’ve held an exceedingly unprofessional grudge ever since. Before the Korn thing, that tour cancellation was the last we’d heard of the band, and it was probably where most of us decided to stop caring. But here they are again, making another stab at assuring us that their long-boiling masterpiece will finally someday see the light of day. At this point, it’s hard to believe. Take a minute and picture yourself walking into Tower or whatever and seeing Chinese Democracy staring back at you on the new-release rack. How much would it cost? What would the cover art be? Would it be in a normal CD jewel case or one of those weird cardboard things that never quite fit right on most CD shelves? Recent events are just bizarre enough to make the eventual release of this thing seem almost plausible, but I just can’t visualize it ever happening.
There is, however, the matter of these new songs; I’m hoping these things are out here just to lower everyone’s expectations. The mixes are all cluttered and muddy, so hopefully they aren’t quite done yet, but they aren’t terrible. Two of the songs were kicking around the set lists of that abbreviated tour, so there’s only one completely new joint, and it’s the best of the three, even if its title really seems to be “T.W.A.T. (There Was a Time).” I’ve always had a certain fondness for the overreaching sweep of GNR’s epic power-ballads, and “T.W.A.T.” is firmly in “Estranged” mode, even if it has nothing that quite compares to that song’s soaring riff. It starts out with a dinky almost-rap drum-shuffle and a one-finger piano line, and it builds quickly; the fake-Slash guitar peels start up at the 53-second mark, and the weeping strings come in twelve seconds later. It’s hard to pick out lyrics through the shitty mix and Axl’s chiffon yowl (which is still firmly in effect, even if he isn’t even trying to use it with anything resembling subtlety), but the song, like the other two, seems to be about a breakup, which opens the tantalizing possibility that Chinese Democracy could be a concept album about Stephanie Seymour. “T.W.A.T.” has basically no quiet bits; it seems to be about half coda, strings and guitar-wheedles and drums and drum-machines and pianos and wordless howls all fighting for elbow room. A couple of nice little hooks are buried in there, but we have to practically dig for them. The other two songs, “I.R.S.” and “The Blues” are essentially shorter versions of the same thing, surging vainglorious epics that waste absolutely no time before swelling up huge. There are a few variations: the watery Irv Gotti synth on “The Blues,” the gristly pedal-steel on “I.R.S.” But all three are full to the point of bursting: everything thrown against the wall, nothing much sticking. If the dismal opening of “I.R.S.” is any indication, Axl has completely forgotten how to write quiet parts; it’s all at once or not at all. So let’s hope he hasn’t decided the album is finished; daunting as it might be to consider, these songs need more work.