I just can’t express how much I hate this logo
The last time a few Guns N Roses tracks leaked, I had this to say: “Take a minute and picture yourself walking into Tower or whatever and seeing Chinese Democracy staring back at you on the new-release rack … I just can’t visualize it ever happening.” That was almost exactly a year ago today, and as it turns out, I was right. Tower Records has now gone through the last of its death throes, and we aren’t really any closer to seeing a final retail version of Chinese Democracy, the new GNR album that’s been in the works for well over a decade. We’ll never, ever walk into Tower Records and see an actual CD copy of the album; the store no longer exists. The retail market for CDs is disappearing at such a frantic clip and maybe we’ll never see a copy of the album in the Virgin Megastore or Best Buy either. By the time Axl Rose deems Chinese Democracy fit for release, maybe we’ll only be able to buy it in ringtone form. Maybe all human life will be scorched from the surface of the planet and Axl will have to sell the album to roaches since they’ll be the only living things left to hear the thing. Or maybe not. Since those unpromising Chinese Democracy demos leaked, the band now calling itself Guns N Roses managed to complete a well-received arena tour, and Axl is yet again attempting to assure us that the album will definitely-absolutely see release in the next few months. I’ll believe that when I see it, but yesterday Idolator gave us maybe the most encouraging glimpse yet of the form the album may take: an mp3 of “Better,” a new song that actually seems to be finished. (The mp3 has since been taken off the site, but you can still stream it.) And here’s some cause for celebration: “Better” is a pretty good Guns N Roses song. I sure didn’t see this coming.
The song starts out pretty dubiously: a screechy filtered guitars with Axl singing in a horrible little falsetto and pseudo-industrial drum machines clanking away underneath. After a few seconds, though, it suddenly surges up into a satisfyingly melodic guitar-crunch, and Axl lets his voice settle into its usual scratchy, vaguely feminine whine, which, miraculously enough, hasn’t deteriorated much in the past twenty years. Like all the songs that leaked a year ago, “Better” is a breakup song, and on the pre-chorus, Axl dips into a low, self-pitying moan, where things threaten to get a bit emo. (Actually, now that I think about it, Axl might be a great unsung influence on the vocalists from half the MySpace emo bands currently cluttering up Fuse.) That only lasts for a line or so, though: when the chorus rips into a vaguely funky stomp, Axl lets his still-formidable sneer burst through undiluted, all the stronger for its absence up until now: “Now I know you better / You know I know better.” There’s a lot going on in the mix: wheedly guitars and gurgly synths, everything layered up into a precarious pile. But all those multitracked elements are there to serve the song’s basic groove, which is a neat little update on the classic-rock swagger that Axl has always known how to find. One of Guns N Roses’ secret weapons has always been the band’s ability to take subtle shards of disco or synthpop and subsume them into its sound so completely that dance-phobic rock fans have barely even noticed; think the synth-pings of “Welcome to the Jungle” or the insistent locomotive growl of “Rocket Queen.” The blurting keyboards on “Better” fit that lineage nicely; they could’ve been swiped from some recent Parisian rock-techno track. I’m not quite as sold on the song as John Darnielle is; I really hate that intro, and a lot of Axl’s lyrics are pretty awkward: “So bittersweet this tragedy, won’t ask for absolution / This melody inside of me still searches for solution.” Still, it’s a nice little surprise; I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t expecting anything from Chinese Democracy, and here we suddenly have the best Guns N Roses song since 1991.
There’s always a veneer of whispered rumor around any rumblings related to Chinese Democracy; apparently, an earlier version of “Better” was making the internet rounds a few years ago. But the song is new to me, and I’m just dumb enough to take it as a sign that Chinese Democracy might not be the cluserfuck travesty I’ve long expected. At this point, it’ll be near-impossible to hear Chinese Democracy, if it ever comes out, as actual music, since the event-buzz surrounding it has been so deafening for damn near half of my life. But I’ve been listening to “Better” on repeat all afternoon, and I haven’t tired of it yet. Those demos that leaked last year were so misshapen and cluttered that I could barely make out actual songs under all those whizjets. The production on “Better” is just as excessive, but the song underneath it all is strong enough to shine through everything, and most of the track’s elements actually strengthen the song’s impact rather than diminishing it. So Axl has gone and gotten me excited again. I’m such an idiot.
Voice review: Greg Milner on Guns N Roses at Madison Square Garden