How you respond to the long, long-awaited Guns N Roses album, “Chinese Democracy,” will probably depend on whether you were already a GNR fan. The band has always had a fairly wide fan base, including the hard-rock fans and enough punks, power poppers, and metalheads to fill the country’s biggest arenas. In the late 80s and early 90s, Axl Rose’s voice demanded attention even in a crowded arena-rock field, and Slash was clearly a talented guitarist. Still, I never counted myself among their fans. So the 17-year wait for this album didn’t whip me into the frenzy of expectation that has struck so many others. I was curious, though, to hear what would result from such a long and apparently difficult gestation, so when the band (nowadays just Axl and whatever sidemen can stand being around him) started streaming the album online last week, I had to check it out.
I figured I would be able to dismiss this new GNR album as just more of the same, and despite some interesting bits of production and found sound, the opening track, the song “Chinese Democracy,” suggested that would be the case. But the next track, “Shackler’s Revenge,” was okay. And by track 3, “Better,” I found myself thinking, dammit, am I gonna end up liking a Guns N Roses album? Well, no. My first reaction to the album as a whole was to think of a Beatles lyric – “it’s all too much/for me to take…” The production of this album is a virtuoso display, as you might expect when the artist has 17 years to tweak every note, every gesture, every layered track in each song. But it doesn’t make the songwriting better – just bigger.
But there’s another way of reacting to “Chinese Democracy.” This album was begun in 1991. Just think about that for a moment. No internet, no digital audio files, no Youtube, no MySpace, no iTunes – just CDs, millions and millions of them, being bought and sold in record stores around the country. The music world today would be unrecognizable to someone from 1991 who’d just been transported here. So here comes “Chinese Democracy” - a relic of an earlier time, like finding a brontosaurus drinking at the Central Park reservoir. Guns N Roses must know that: even with the online streaming, Axl Rose is only making the record available in stores – specifically, in Best Buy stores. No digital sales. It’s like a big exclamation point at the end of a decades-long sentence.
What’s your opinion? Like it or not, what’s the significance of this album?