The End of an Era

My first memory of Guns ’n’ Roses coincides with the last time they were truly culturally significant: it was around 1992 or ’93, and I was in 5th grade. My gym teacher, Mr. Tenero, would occasionally let us bring in music to do whatever the hell it is you do in fifth grade gym class. Two of the more edgy dudes brought in a cassette– cassettes being the primary and most affordable method of obtaining music at the time– of Use Your Illusion II, and after my gym teacher skimmed over the lyrics, he thanked them for wanting to contribute to the class, but he thought that the tape was too inappropriate for its intended purpose. One of those guys would grow up to be a junkie that would go to jail for beating up his mother. I graduated from high school, went to college, graduated from college, got a Master’s Degree, and have had a series of jobs since then. I went from liking Nirvana to Nine Inch Nails to Fear Factory to Slayer to Emperor to Dying Fetus to Anaal Nathrakh to Suffocation to probably hundreds of other bands, both metal and decidedly not so. In that time, we’ve gone from consuming music via magnetic tape to the digital ambitions of CDs to the once futuristic concept of having all music be completely digital and held in a device the size of a palm, weighing only a few ounces. Through all this, the last original work by Guns ’n’ Roses remained the Use Your Illusion duo.

That duo already showed GnR fraying at the edges: they’re both fatally imperfect records, usually drowning in their own mega-excess and threatening to collapse under the weight of their spectacular ambitions. But there were also a bunch of great songs on those records that would rightfully join Guns ’n’ Roses’ canon. From there, GnR went from being the world’s biggest band– both in overindulgence and popularity– to the holders of a “long awaited” record, to a nostalgia act. Before hearing a note of Chinese Democracy, most had already written it off and were pining for the GnR lineup of lore, because in between the Use Your Illusion stadium tours and the cold November Sunday when the new Guns ‘n’ Roses album was officially and finally released, bands long thought dead returning to the road and studio became big business. While Chinese Democracy began as a fight for W. Axl Rose to stay relevant and push the GnR’s dirty roots to the limits of their very definition, it’s been in waiting for long enough to be viewed as another in a long line of bands past their prime trying to prove themselves as still artistically significant.

And in Axl’s defense, this isn’t fair; he’s been working on this since The Spaghetti Incident, so it was probably made with at least some– if not truly the best, for him– artistic intentions in mind. In Axl’s condemnation, it would may have been in his best interest to have put this out in 1999, when it would have knocked the world on its collective ass. But either way now, it’s legally out in the world, no longer just a mess of bootlegs and rumors. And the strange thing about Chinese Democracy is that it doesn’t sound like anything around right now while avoiding sounding like it was frozen in the amber of the mid-nineties. Our shared attitudes toward this record– waning from excitement to denunciation– have shifted so dramatically that it became impossible to have any accurate expectations for this record. Its mythic stature has made it transcend a worth-the-wait affair or an epic disappointment. It simply is, now.

But what is it, exactly? It’s too much. It’s bloated, with every note on the record produced within an inch of sounding robotic. Nothing on this record is simple, but instead a collection of ideas rethought and rethought then covered with a gloss of new perspective. Axl’s love of rock pomposity and excess dates back to the multi-million dollar videos for “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged”; Chinese Democracy is that love fully blossomed. It makes the Use Your Illusion records, both toeing the line of Spinal Tap-worthy glut themselves, seem like gravelly, lo-fi demos. It could possibly be the most enormous album ever released, which is both its greatest failure and its greatest triumph. Chinese Democracy is so overstated that you can’t peg it as either good or bad; it’s a mess, but what a glorious mess it is.

When taken for exactly what it is– and let’s just be reasonable here and eschew any hope that it will recapture any of the sound or spirit of Appetite for Destruction— it’s in many ways one of the great rock records. Though perhaps only half of the songs on the record are good songs, the not-so-good ones are so spectacularly executed that they’re at least worth an approving nod, even if they’re usually songs you’ll come to skip over when returning to Chinese Democracy in the future. And that return will come about: Axl, for all his ridiculousness and dunderheadedness, has an impeccable ear for pop rock songwriting. From the title track to the sad radio rock of “Better” to the Queen-esque overreaching of Chinese Democracy’s first leak– via the band itself at the 2002 VMAs– “Madagascar”, there isn’t necessarily a shortage of good songs, even if the record isn’t made up entirely of good songs. Perhaps it’s the low expectations due to our “where’s Slash and Duff?!” dismissal of anything GnR past 1993, but many of the album’s songs are particularly affecting, and stick to the soul like flies to flypaper.

This, of course, presents the most damning aspect of Chinese Democracy: what does any of this have to do with Guns ‘n’ Roses? The band established itself as a breath of fresh air from the glossy and weak metal-du-jour: glam and what has now become known as Hair Metal. Appetite— and it was a conscious decision not to mention the seminal album more than once before now– was a dirty butterfly knife to the gut of Poison and Whitesnake, reminding the general public of the scrappy roots of rock and roll via equal parts classic rock swagger and punk rock piss and vinegar. As we all collectively predicted, Chinese Democracy has nothing in common with Appetite for Destruction. The band name is seemingly just a formality. But with that, not a moment of the new record is spent missing Slash, Duff, or Izzy; listen to Chinese Democracy and try and find a moment where they would have fit. You won’t come across such a moment.

The massive irony of Chinese Democracy is that it’s released under the name of a band that reminded the public the refreshing power of a band writing simply great, ballsy rock songs. That irony also encompasses the fact that, in an age where any jerk off with a guitar, a Pro Tools rig, and some expensive microphones can make a glossy rock record, it’s an album that actually benefits from intemperance. When Nickelback and Hinder write shamelessly simple music and manage to sell a simply retarded amount of albums doing so, Axl Rose dropping a neutron bomb of complexity into the mainstream feels like a relief. The rock world into which the original incarnation of the band plunged a syringe of adrenaline has come full circle; the downside to the near-Communist pop culture atmosphere where anyone is capable of making a record is that not everyone can do it well. In that sense, the title of the new Guns ’n’ Roses record is strangely prophetic. The tens of millions of dollars put into Chinese Democracy are terrifically apparent. This album could not have been made by anyone but the mythic figure of W. Axl Rose. The seventeen years it spent in gestation all feel necessary. Whether or not it’s good or bad seem like semantics; this record is purely an event. And whether its ambition signals the resurgence of or conclusive demise of rock and roll as we once knew it, Chinese Democracy lives up to, in every conceivable way, all its good and bad hype. And in that, more than any other record I’ve ever heard, you’d be stupid to miss it. Axl Rose’s two decades worth of artistic excess has yielded results. Whether they’re worthwhile or hollowly pretentious, by no means is Chinese Democracy a failure.


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