Album Review : Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Chinese Democracy became Guns N' Roses second most iconic album after Appetite for Destruction before it even was recorded. It became notorious for taking fourteen years and thirteen million dollars to release, making it the most expensive rock album ever produced and the butt-end of every cynical procrastinator joke : "I'll finish it after Chinese Democracy is released," was a thing to say at some point. That infamy has rendered Chinese Democracy irrelevant to hardcore Guns N' Roses fans who chose to make abstraction of it was ever released. This album, for people who still care about the band, doesn't really exist. But is it good? That is what I started wondering after ignoring it for close to nine years. So I gave Chinese Democracy a spin and what I've heard was both mind-blowing and utterly predictable.
The craziest thing about Chinese Democracy is that it sounds exactly like I imagined it would: like a conventionalGuns N' Roses that tries WAY too hard to impress and meanders in too many directions at once. It's good in the way Guns N' Roses' albums are usually good. There are aggressive, distorted classic rock riffs that carry most of the songs, Axl Rose signs about treacherous women, heartbreak and going down fighting, the majority of its songs are lengthy, intricate and were recorded with the ambition of being epic. But Chinese Democracy is different enough from Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion albums to be its own thing. The fourteen years it took to record is inexplicable, but I certainly can understand why Axl was self-concious about releasing it following the commercial failure of The Spaghetti Incident? in 1993.
The first two songs on the record Chinese Democracy and Shackler's Revenge are classic up tempo Guns N' Roses bangers that could've been nondescript songs on every other album of their except perhaps Lies. They're great, but they don't have much an identity of their own. Replace Anything Goes with Chinese Democracy on Appetite for Destruction and I don't think anybody notices. Chinese Democracy becomes interesting and unique with Better, which timidly dabbles with electronic sounds and shifts tempos in an explosive manner like an Axl Rose mood swing. It sounds weirdly nineties, but it would've have been a great nineties song iif it had been released then. The following song Street of Dreams is perhaps my least favorite on the record because of Axl's ridiculous and melodramatic vocal delivery, which is a recurring problem on the album. He overdoes it too on power ballad This I Love, which is one of my favorite songs on Chinese Democracy, but that song is so self-assuming that it works. It's one of these songs that was written to be sang by drunk, brokenhearted men at 3 AM at a Karaoke bar.
Perhaps my favorite song on Chinese Democracy and what I believe is their most iconic is Riad N' the Bedouins, which has this catchy-as-hell war cry of a chorus that gives the song such a strong identity. I love also the lyrics of this song which is a thinly veiled allegory for the making of the album. They talk about a "war that you can't win" of frustrations and salvation, etc. I don't care if Axl Rose says it's about his ex brother-in-law, he's not fooling me. The song is dope and it's been added to my all-time Guns N' Roses playlist along with Better and This I Love. Riad N' the Bedouins is, I believe, the flagship song of Chinese Democracy, though. The one that truly revives the Guns N' Roses of old that people still love today.
There are plenty of weird, disconcerting but not completely unpleasurable moments on Chinese Democracy too. Sorry is a complete departure from their sound. Chuck Klosterman, in his A.V Club review, compared it to Pink Floyd, which is a pretty accurate description of what it sounds like. The song is not bad per se, but I have no idea what the hell it's doing on this record. Madagascar is another head scratcher. It seems like it's been written in order to make up for infamous racist anthem One in a Million, recorded on Lies. There's even samplings from Martin Luther King on it. It's really a weird song and not a good one. It also suffers from being placed after the fun and sassy I.R.S. There is a hint of Axl Rose's musical ambition on Chinese Democracy and sometimes it feels quite out of place, but he managed to balance what he wanted to do and what people wanted to hear.
Chinese Democracy is actually a good record. Of course, it doesn't live up to the mythical expectations it created for itself, but I don't believe anyone expected it to. Overall, it compares well with the Use Your Illusion albums. There maybe aren't iconic songs like November Rain, Estranged or You Could Be Mine, but there's a comparison to be made for the rest. The songs are consistently good even if they're flooring the rock n' roll pedal a little too hard all the time. Can you skip it and live the happily ever after as a Guns N' Roses fan? Yes and no. If Chinese Democracy has only ten songs and skipped: Sorry, Madagascar, Street of Dreams and another weird track like seventies funk influenced If the World, it would've been another classic. I would advise giving it a fair shot. There are songs on Chinese Democracy worth adding in your Guns N' Roses playlists. It's not a perfect album, but none of their previous album was except maybe for Appetite for Destruction