Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chinese Democracy

For 15 years the best thing about Axl Rose's pet project was the name. The ambivalence created by titling a mysterious album Chinese Democracy was priceless. If someone asked, "What do you think of Chinese Democracy?" You could answer in a number of ways that would be equally applicable to the political system and the hard rock enigma. For example:

Asker: What do you think of Chinese Democracy?
Answerer: Oh, I don't think it will ever happen.

Asker: What do you think of Chinese Democracy?
Answerer: I think it would be a mistake.

Asker: What do you think of Chinese Democracy?
Answerer: I'm not sure if the people are ready for it.

Asker: What do you think of Chinese Democracy?
Answerer: In a country with a population of 1.3 billion people a democratic political system built on a Western model of checks and balances could create chaos and actually negatively impact social and economic growth.

That said, we all knew that Axl chose the name for aesthetics and irony more than for the sake of political convictions. After all, he's a rock star whose claim to fame is 1980s excess and obsessive tendencies. If the man has any strong feelings about foreign policy, they are probably more focused on trade arrangements with Colombia than on human rights violations and freedom of speech in China. In a past interview, Axl himself admitted, "It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don't know, I just like the sound of it."

Regardless of the motive behind the name, and the motive behind the album, it's finally here. I've been listening to the title track for the last couple days, and I just finished listening to the entire album. First of all, I have to say that this is an impressively coherent effort for something that has taken seventeen years and at least five guitarists to produce. You can't just listen to the single, you MUST listen to the album.

That said, there are a couple of standout tracks. The first track, "Chinese Democracy" is like an announcement: Rock is back, deal with it. The guitar stabs into an incomprehensible sea of babbling Chinese as if Axl is telling everyone to shut up and listen to what he has to say. I agree with other critics in saying that it's not exactly clear what the message of the lyrics is: it's something between a personal meta-narrative about the process of making the album and typical rock and roll drivel about love lost and found. He does make a few references to China, but it's unclear what the point is.

Clocking in at 6:41, "There Was a Time" is the first track that made me think, "Damn, now there's a rock song." There are a lot of people out there who are saying that without Slash it isn't a GNR album. I say they're wrong. This is as much Guns N Roses as "Sweet Child Of Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle." And it's a hell of a lot better than any of the trash that Slash released with Velvet Revolver.

"Catcher in the Rye" is a track that's going to get a lot of attention. Most of the attention will come from the title and analysis of how Axl relates to Holden Caulfield. Personally, I have always found the superficial reading of Catcher in the Rye as a tale of adolescent angst to be the most convincing. Given the frustration that must have either come from or gone into the 17 year production of this album, I think the connection here is pretty obvious. It's a good song, but not the strongest on the record.

There are also a number of piano propelled tracks that conjur up allusions to "November Rain." If you listen to this album from start to finish and still think that the lack of Slash diminishes the GNR characteristics of this album, then you are either not listening or you are in denial. If nothing else, tell yourself that Axl set out to prove he could make a GNR album without the iconic guitarist in the top hat.

I prefer a different analysis though. I think that the album is stronger without Slash. While Slash is a great guitar player, he has a very distinctive style of amped up meandering blues-rock. I love to listen to it. As Regina Spektor says of "November Rain," "that solo's awfully long, but it's a great refrain." He played great sing-along solos, but you always had something of an idea of what they would sound like. On this album, Axl uses riffs and solos from at least five different guitarists recorded over the course of almost two decades. It's amazing that he put together such a tight album from such a mess, and one of the best things it has to offer is diversity in guitar playing.

On the whole, I am very impressed by Chinese Democracy. While I will admit up front that I was predisposed to think positively of it because I found the hype highly enjoyable, I will also say that I was originally in the "it's not GNR without Slash" camp. Color me converted. This album rocks, and definitely counts as Guns N Roses. In the spirit of the title, I say grab this album however you can - legally or otherwise. No matter what, definitely go out and listen to it.

Then send copies to your friends in China, where it's officially banned. Maybe they'll get the right idea (the right idea: Rock and Roll is fing sweet, and censorship is bullshit).


Zamdrovsky said...

This morning on NPR I heard a quote from some Chinese official saying, roughly, "No one likes this kind of music anyway - it is too loud and clamorous."

Leon Leon Leon said...
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Leon Leon Leon said...