Almost Great Albums: Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy

Plenty has been written about rock’s great albums.  Not enough has been written, in my opinion, on rock’s almost great albums.  The ones that provide a generally enjoyable musical experience, but ultimately frustrate the listener because they come close to being classics, but yet contain flaws that can’t be ignored.

Chinese Democracy, officially a Guns N’ Roses album but really an Axl Rose solo project (none of the original band members appear on the record), seems like as good a choice as any to start this series.  Even if you’ve never heard Chinese Democracy, you’ve probably heard about it:  reportedly the most expensive rock album ever produced at around $13 million, work began on Democracy in 1997, with an expected release date of sometime in 1999 or 2000.  That got pushed back, ever so slightly, with the disc finally hitting stores in 2008.  Lineup changes, lawsuits, re-recordings, and Axl’s notorious perfectionism all contributed to the delays.  (If interested, the details of why the album took over a decade to produce are pretty well documented in its Wikipedia entry.)

Once released, Chinese Democracy got a decent amount of hype, generally positive albeit not overwhelming reviews…but relatively poor sales.   Nearly a decade later, it generally is not mentioned among fans as being in the same league as Appetite for Destruction or even the band’s twin Use Your Illusion albums.

There is little doubt that the absurd production time and Axl Rose’s uncanny ability to be as unlikable as possible contributed to the album’s reputation.  But when you give the disc a fair listening on its own terms, you are reminded that while Rose may be an asshole of epic proportions, he also is an ultra-talented musician and skilled and thoughtful songwriter.   And you can certainly not call him lazy; Chinese Democracy certainly does sounds like an album that took over ten years to make.   There are no half-assed throwaway fillers here.  Axl seems determined to make not only an epic album, but an epic album filled with nothing but epic songs.   And he almost pulls it off; tracks such as “Better”, “Catcher in the Rye”, “Street of Dreams”, and the mysteriously titled “Madagascar” are all intricately constructed in both form and accompaniment,  effortlessly and seamlessly transitioning between piano openings, blazing guitar solos, orchestral arrangements, and sometimes even samples of famous speeches.  One might say that he often tries to out-Oasis Oasis.

The harder-rocking cuts, such as “IRS”, “Riad N’ The Bedouins” and “Shackler’s Revenge” mostly deliver the goods, but aim for a more modern, almost industrial feel that seems cold compared to the blues-rock roots of the band’s days with Slash and Izzy.  This is ultimately the aggravating thing about Chinese Democracy; one gets the sense that Axl Rose has put together a great set of songs that would probably sound better live and almost certainly would bring down the house if performed with some variation of the original G’NR lineup.   But ten year’s worth of obsession over getting every detail right and attempting to turn every song into a musical version of a Kubrick film ultimately sucks the soul out of this record.   Perhaps the title of the record becomes kind of ironically appropriate: much like with actual Chinese Democracy, what you get with this album is something approaching but falling short of the real deal.

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