by Chris McGinty
It’s midnight on November 23, 2021 and I just started listening to “Chinese Democracy” by Guns ‘n’ Roses. I’ve never heard it. You can read about the reason why I waited for thirteen years to listen to this masterpiece and/or piece of shit and find any song by song thoughts I might write by going to this link hub. I’m not hating this first song, so I hope this is a good sign. I’ve decided to write this blog post the whole time I’m listening and tell you what I think as almost a reaction. I will do some edits before I post, so I can make my unclear thoughts clearer.
There may be one thing that Axl Rose had going for him when he came into this album, which is that he was the primary backing vocalist on the early G ‘n’ R albums, so he doesn’t have to worry about losing that aspect of the sound.
I’m listening to the album on YouTube as I’ve never found a physical copy of the album at my normal used music haunts. The second song “Shackler’s Revenge” sounds like something that should have come out when Stabbing Westward, Powerman 5000, and Gravity Kills were at the height of their popularity. I’m not sure I like his vocals on this one.
I waited thirteen years to listen to this album, because I was a bit disgruntled that Axl Rose took off for a decade plus when he could have done anything he wanted. I don’t know if he was raising kids or something where I would give him a pass for stepping away, but I’m a bit confused by artists who make it and then stop doing the thing they worked so hard to do. I’m going to write a blog post one of these days about the phenomenon, because even though I sound a bit judgmental here, I think I might understand better than I think. Speaking of “Better”… eh…
There’s this thing that happens with bands and fans where there’s a year or two between albums and the band has changed a little in their songwriting interests, but the fans are listening to the last album thinking that nothing has changed. “Chinese Democracy” isn’t exactly that. It feels like it’s an album that is styled to sound like how Guns ‘n’ Roses might have sounded had they continued to release albums and the put out an album in 2008. Even the guitar solos seem to be fashioned after WWSP (“What Would Slash Play?”) [NOTE: I read Slash’s thoughts on the album after writing this and he felt the guitarists, especially Buckethead, were great, but were stylistically different. I still felt some of the solos were designed to sound like Slash’s solos.]
I’m five songs in and it’s getting funky up in here. Let me talk about the “Use Your Illusion” twins for a moment. At their worst, those albums were clear evidence that people were afraid to use the phrase, “Axl, this idea sucks.” I’m getting that vibe here. I want to say that Axl is being bold with his choices, but some of it still feels like someone should have said, “This doesn’t work as well as you think, Mr. Rose.” Instrumentally, I like “If the World,” and I like the melodic tones of his vocals. This one might grow on me.
I feel like the Guns ‘n’ Roses era was over just after “Terminator 2” left the theaters. “You Could Be Mine,” was probably written when “Appetite for Destruction” was written and most of “Use Your Illusion” was bloated and uninspired. What I know about the writing of those albums was that no one really wanted to be there. They were disagreeing about the musical direction and I feel that Axl was trying to establish himself as a timeless songwriter. Maybe he even believed he didn’t need input from the other guys, but the only other song on that album that felt like it could have been on “Appetite for Destruction” was “Pretty Tied Up,” which as I understand it was the song that had the most input from Izzy Stradlin.
“Don’t be a pain in the Axl. He’ll be back… in thirteen years.”
As I’m listening to “Chinese Democracy,” I’m thinking about songs by the measure of what sounds like it could have been on “Use Your Illusion.” This isn’t necessarily a good thing. I’ve heard nothing yet that could have been on “Appetite for Destruction.” This may be unfair. I brought up earlier about the problem that happens between bands and fans. This could just be that. I want an album sound that was barely there when the last album was written. I think it’s more than that though. As the seventh track wraps up here, I will note that I’m at the halfway point. It’s possible that some of this album will work with repeated listening; but as a first listen, I’m not really liking it all that much. It’s ok.
I brought up “Pretty Tied Up” because it’s possible that the reason “Use Your Illusion” lacked the “Appetite” sound is because it was more like the first Axl Rose solo album than I realized. I’m also realizing that we aren’t getting too many breaks from Axl’s singing on “Chinese Democracy.” There are guitar solos, but no notable instrumental movements. There are a few reasons this might be. It could be an attempt to avoid the bloat that riddled “Use Your Illusion.” It could be lack of input into the songwriting and song structure, causing songs written around the vocals. It could be that sometime in the 90s, radio stations seemed to become afraid of songs that spent too much time doing something that people couldn’t sing along to. I talked about this when I was talking about “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, but I’ll expand on the thought.
I think that on one level radio tracks are designed to be sung along to. At the same time, the rise of radio stations programmed by committee to keep people from flipping away caused radio stations all over the nation to sound pretty much alike. It was like the Stepford Program Directors. It had to affect the way that albums were written as well. Is it possible that Axl Rose truly believed that every one of these songs had the potential to be radio gold? I don’t know. I wish there was something that was making these songs interesting. It’s a lot of the same followed by a lot of the same. Many of the songs feel like imitations of other songs we’ve already heard, not done as well.
The squad going to work to find the songs you like so you don’t have to.
Some of the songs are good, I suppose. They’re just not doing anything that’s reeling me in, and I’m generally easy to reel in when a song interests me. The opening track has so far been the best song on here, which isn’t a good sign for relistenability. I’m going to approach this from a different direction to try to explain myself. In some ways, this feels a little overproduced, and I’m not sure if that’s even fair but hear me out. I said that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for us to really take a break from Axl’s vocals, but that’s not the whole story. It also sounds like every second of the album has been maximized with engineering tricks and layered instruments. Even the breakdowns seem to be measured to try to reach a mastery of sonic perfection. There doesn’t ever seem to be a point where we get to just focus on one thing that’s going on in the song. It’s as if they had a 32-track board and there was no point in the recording where they felt like they could get the sound they wanted from only 10 tracks; like it’s all elegance and little substance. I’m going to have to go back and listen to a song like “It’s So Easy” or even a radio favourite like “Sweet Child of Mine” and see if I’m completely off here. It feels like when you’re recording a band you’re trying to capture a sound that has been played live and can be replicated live, but this album doesn’t feel like that’s the intention.
I’m listening to the song “Madagascar” and it’s doing that thing that I hated about “Civil War.” It’s a technique that can work, but it’s never worked for me when Guns ‘n’ Roses does it. I know there are a lot of people who swear that “Civil War” is an all-time great, but it never worked for me.
I’ll get into this when I go song by song, but “This I Love” is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a piano and vocals song, but from the very get there were layered vocals and a symphony. There are no moments where the production takes a break. It’s possible that some of these songs work on a song by song basis, but as an album it’s a bit much. I also notice that I’m officially over an hour into this. It’s almost over, but I just wonder if we needed this much on this album. It’s not exactly bloated like “Use Your Illusion,” but I think “Chinese Democracy” could have been a strong fifty minute album with a couple of throwaway b-sides. I believe that it could have been better crafted to feel more like an album than a collection of songs. This last song is actually pretty good, so the album started strong and is ending strong, but it was very hit and miss in the in between. I’ll give it at least another listen through if not a couple so that I can be fair when I go song by song.
I will say this. It’s grander and bigger than most solo albums. It’s as if they got a better budget for recording based on the fact that it was going to have the Guns ‘n’ Roses name on the cover. I’ve heard so many solo albums that seemed to lack production. They give the band the money and studio time, but they give the solo artist very little. The album just ended, so I’m going to end this blog post. It’s not a great album on first listen. There are some decent songs, but a great album is a collection of songs that you generally don’t want to hear without hearing them all. This isn’t that. I’ll blog more later about the individual songs.
Chris McGinty is a blogger. Let’s leave it at that this time. I wasn’t really writing this as I normally do where I’m looking for some humour to be getting’ at.