Guns N' Roses were the arguably the biggest band in the world last time GNR released an original album...and even those Use Your Your Illusion albums were disappointing to some. I can understand the pressure that Axl must have been feeling as the years passed and the album still wasn't released. I imagine he was thinking something along the lines of "this album has to be fucking epic." So delay, tweak, edit, produce, delay, re-record, edit, tweak, delay...repeat. It makes sense, but I think Axl fell into the trap of trying to fulfill the hype and please everyone.
I, like many people, had really been looking forward to the release of Chinese Democracy for over 10 years. With each announced date and subsequent delay, my enthusiasm waned a little. When I bought tickets to see Guns N' Roses in concert on Dec 2006, I was hoping that my excitement would be renewed...plus since the were on the Chinese Democracy tour, the album was imminent right? The opposite happened instead. I really enjoyed the songs from Chinese Democracy live in concert, but the whole experience left me uninterested and a little pissed at Axl. I did not buy the album when it came out nearly 2 years later, I did not listen and hear any songs on the radio (I think I heard "Better" once though), I did not check out videos on youtube. I just had no real interest or desire - I guess I can hold a grudge a long time.
A couple weeks ago, I happened to be shopping online at Bestbuy, looking for something completely unrelated and it just happened to hit me that I should look up the Chinese Democracy CD. I don't know why this popped in my head, I hadn't thought about it in a couple years, so it was a little strange. I searched and it the CD was only $1.99 (double vinyl is also $1.99) with free shipping. I decided to do a store pickup as I was headed there anyways. I figured $2 was low enough that the risk of disappointment and feeling ripped off was relatively low.
I popped the CD into my car stereo and listened through the whole thing that day within a few driving periods. My first thought was "meh." It had a couple catchy guitar riffs and lyrics and it was nice to hear Axl's voice again (as just hearing it brought back memories of my adolescence) but overall it didn't do much for me. Of course, I was hoping for the balls out rock and roll from the Appetite for Destruction album - but I don't really seeing him writing that gritty of music as he is now near 50 (although strangle Dave Mustaine from Megadeth is basically the same age and I still expect him to make music like he did in his 30's - but not really his 20's I guess - maybe that is the difference).
This album has many issues.
- I think the songs are too long*. I like tight concise rock songs...the three and a half minute is perfect for my mind. Long enough to really pack a punch and get your blood going, but it doesn't drag on and start to get boring. If you were really paying attention, you could tell that as Axl took over more writing duties from Izzy Stradlin that the songs became longer and less rocky. Basically, if you compare You Could be Mine to November Rain you can see the difference right there. Rock vs Epic Ballad. Both good in their own way, but completely different. I like epic ballads, but I think they should be the minority instead of the majority of the record. Axl has lost the feel for the three and a half minute plain rock song. It seems that he has tried to make everything too epic.
*Turns out that the songs just seem long. Yes, most are in the 4.5 - 5.5 minute mark, which is longer than I thought...but they almost always feel two minutes longer. For some of the reasons listed below.
- Too much shit - and by that I don't mean too many shitty songs, I mean the songs just seem overloaded. Too much synth, too much orchestra, too much background noise. It makes many of the songs feel very messy and overwhelming.
- Too much filler - the biggest mistake that I think Axl made was putting 1 minute of filler (ambient noise, people talking unintelligibly, street noise, etc...) before the song Chinese Democracy. It is one of the best songs on the album, and the first song on the album...with the minute of filler, I was already bored before the album started. I think maybe he wanted to have it build up to the song, but it just didn't work. A couple of the other tracks also have this type of lead-in and I just am not feeling it for the record.
- Too downbeat - it is not a happy album, and with its slower pace it just seems to drag on. On great albums I am full of energy at the end and want to immediately start listening to it again, on this album I feel a little exhausted and drained (but not in a "Wow what a moving experience kind of way").
- Too many meandering guitar solos - this leads back to the songs feeling too long, but having three to five guitarists contributing to some tracks just leads to too many solos and guitar effects. I like Buckethead, but I just don't see him as being part of the GNR sound (and yes, I think it is easy to pick out his solos). It just lead to it feeling overbearing when I would have loved something stripped down.
- Repetitive - on some songs the chorus just seems super repetitive. I think it is actually drowning out the rest of the lyrics which are often kind of hard to understand, so the chorus just stands out all the more but becomes repetitive on several songs. Plus are there so few good quotes out there that you had to re-use the Cool Hand Luke "failure to communicate" quote that was used on "Civil War"?
- Too much electronic drums - unless you are doing industrial music or rap, there is not much use for a drum machine. You can tell the difference and it is so boring and sterile.
- Boring cover art - really a bicycle with a basket in sepia tone? It feels drab and I think that feeling gets transferred into your thoughts about the music (at least at first). Seriously, this is just a boring cover.
However, it is not all bad. After the first listen, I set the album aside for a few days but my mind kept coming back to a few guitar riffs, vocals, or lyrics. I gave it a couple more listens over the past week and it has grown on me quite a bit. It is not a terrible album, just not a great album. There are a few hooks to pull you in but nothing that instantly stood out and made me want to listen over and over. There are some parts that I really like - unfortunately not many songs come together as a complete package and that means that it is just not full of hit songs. I do like it though and think that I will be returning to it every so often, but it is definitely not an "era defining" album like both Appetite and Use Your Illusion were to me. I do think it is a pretty decent album and powerful - just not instantly catchy. It not something you will be singing along with all the lyrics like Appetite, but it is worth a listen. For $2, I would recommend this album to most people. I think you will get $2 worth of enjoyment out of it if you go in with an open mind and not expect the old GNR. Hearing Axl screaming and screeching like the good old days is worth that much...and I think the album will continue to grow on me.