Guns N’ Roses
Chinese Democracy (Interscope)
By Martin Popoff
OK, just wanted to get this off my chest, namely a review of a close approximation to what Chinese Democracy will be, got it? Here goes then. Great band, but it’s not because of the way over-rated Appetite; rather it’s Illusion, stupid. Before those two rock starry sprawls, man, Guns N’ Roses were the luckiest band since the Stones, their slightly better than average record picked from a mangy litter, and then slavishly pushed and shoved to iconic status by stupid, amplified, artery-clogging talk and parroting thereafter of it. But the Illusion duo was a feast of moneyed decadence, of rotten knowledge gained the bad way, and then substantial talent built upon by four more years of being a bad-ass band. Those records were like GN’R arriving at great from promise, but damn it, Appetite is an 8.
Anyway, Chinese Democracy (yeah, yeah, I’m reviewing the leaked tracks so far – not the finished record) is a masterpiece closing in on Illusion. Sure, Axl is crazy, but just the whole protracted nonsense around not putting this thing out forever, and all the roiling reasons why, all of them along an artistic to crazy axis, that alone confirms that at least he’s tormented by creativity and gives it the respect a corn-cobber in a jaunty hat gives the sea. These songs amplify and underscore, as they are, to a tune, gorgeous. “Better” is everything you’d want a driving, melodic hard-edged ballad to be. It starts trendy and weird and dimensioned, but then lopes into your memory circuits. Axl’s singing is astonishing. Having a nutty voice isn’t enough to praise anybody, but using it the way he does, I mean, check out his flipping between a croon we’ve never heard before and some of his best cat-scratching on “Blues,” and then trademarking it with a perfectly plausible Gunners’ piano line. Then the band fill it up with guitar, insistent rhythm (and then someone else fills it with strings). Heck, even the soloing is lyrical and understated and Slash-like, notwithstanding the Brian May runs. The title track is an epic in under five. Again, he’s certainly had enough time to make these songs diamond-shinin’, and he’s not disappointed. It’s just so cool that, yeah, it’s only Axl and a ragtag bag of pop culture pirates (literally, Replacements), but he’s made the whole thing sound like the next Guns N’ Roses album after Illusion – or the lost link between Slave To The Grind and Subhuman Race, but a soft rock one, and yet more poignant than maudlin – which are both more than enticing proposition, only a few dozen flights of stairs down from a Zep reunion with Jason Bonham or Michael Lee. “There Was A Time” over-slops some production at the beginning, but then settles into a smart set of musical and counterpunching vocal melodies – this is the Beatle-esque that Ozzy and his “team” wish they could craft. “Madagascar” might offer a little too many corporate hip-hop production tips and tricks, but it’s an interesting dish of ear candy all the same. “I.R.S.” continues to fill in the mortar around things Axl figures should be the touchstone of this evolution of the band, namely more than the old amount of loud, busy, sound-collaged balladry and modern drum rhythms, but at a high level of songsmithing and vocals with heart and pathos thrown in for miles. “Catcher In The Rye” continues to put a thumbprint right there, but this is probably the best song on the album, and certainly best of this type. The heavy metal surge in the background is quite novel, and then Axl is left to his Queen/Elton John devices atop it, even evoking Southern rock, just one of the tingly touchstones within a mixing bowl of pop fruity sounds. “Silkworms” is a little weird for weird’s sake, and yeah, all told, there’s not much stomping metal on here, but Axl has transcended that. In fact, the band had sort of transcended already with Use Your Illusion. They were already a mammoth band for every nook of America, but you had to accept that their main and recurring tool was scrappy Aerosmith-based old school heavy metal. So, like I say, the nice thing is that Chinese Democracy is really a logical, plausible and comforting evolution despite all the obstacles against that (time, personnel, the singer and leader being a piano player and not one of the TWO guitarists, plus he’s crazy). One point off for bloat, even though it’s a good bloat. Another half point for too much in that soaring ballad mode.