Review Summary: Axl's "masterpiece" is a decent album...no more, no less. It has some excellent cuts, but it ends up being too bloated and inconsistent to be any better than decent.Chinese Democracy
is a strange album to try and dissect. It's almost impossible, even four years after its release, to discuss the album without bringing up its tortured, drawn-out, and awkward gestation and the revolving door of hired hands Axl Rose deployed in attempting to make this album a masterpiece. When it finally, finally
hit the shelves of Best Buy in November 2008, the result was pretty underwhelming for what was promising to be either a monumental success or, more likely than that, a disaster of Hindenburg-like proportions.
Looking back at it, more removed from the strange circumstances that surrounded its development, Chinese Democracy
stands on its own merits as a decent and interesting album. It has some pretty high points that stand alongside the best of the (surprisingly small) Guns N' Roses catalog, but it also has some major missteps that definitely hurt the album.
First, the good. While Slash's guitar work is sorely missed in places, the album doesn't sink merely because of his absence; the guitarists brought on to fill his void do pretty well. Buckethead is one of the highlights whenever he shows up, his soloing and riffage being a boon to any song with it. (Notable examples include "Shackler's Revenge" and "Better".) The musicianship besides that is competent, at the very least: while the bass is practically nonexistent, the other instruments aren't hindered by any weak links. Axl's singing is also as impressive as it was on albums like Appetite for Destruction
, able to go between his high-pitched wail and crooning normal range rather effortlessly. Also, the production on this album is surprisingly good, wisely avoiding the War of Record Loudness in favor of giving these tracks room to breathe and show off all of their sonic quirks.
There are some songs on this album where all of this comes together, and those tracks compare favorably to the more-loved tracks in the GN'R discography. "Shackler's Revenge" settles into a vicious-sounding groove, with some malevolent Axl vocals and vicious Buckethead shredding. "Street of Dreams" is a gorgeous quasi-ballad, with beautiful piano work and frankly impressive singing, especially at the end of the song. I'd say the album's best song, far and away, is "Better": it features the most compelling vocal performance of the album, and it has a good amount of the edge that came to the forefront on Appetite for Destruction
and on the rougher parts of the Use Your Illusion
duology, actually sounding like it could have come out of the sessions for those albums. A couple other tracks are lesser, but still pretty decent: "There Was A Time" and its seething fury, "Riad 'N The Bedouins" and its cock-rock swagger, the industrial crunch of the title track, and the haunting "Prostitute" head the pack out of the lesser tracks.
Discussing the bad of Chinese Democracy
starts with a simple point: the album feels bloated and overly long. While it doesn't go as over-the-top as Metallica does at times (see Load
or St. Anger
), the fact remains that there are 14 songs stretched over the 72-minute run time. A good number of the weaker songs could have been excised to make for a leaner and punchier album, but the padding and filler makes listening to this album a chore at times.
And, distressingly for an album that had been in gestation since at least 1993
, there are some clunkers among the 14 songs. "Sorry" is probably the weakest song out of the bunch, with its clunky lyrics, repetitive sound, and strange stylistic choices (like Axl's almost cooing of "but I don't want to do it" near the beginning). "If The World", "Scraped", "Catcher in the Rye", and "I.R.S." are all eminently forgettable; "This I Love" is a bland, piano-driven ballad that does absolutely nothing to stand out from the pack of piano-driven ballads that came before it; and "Madagascar" has delusions of grandiosity that get swallowed by the inclusion of quotations from popular culture and the shoehorning of an orchestral section into the song. The "kitchen-sink" approach Axl deployed throughout the album is one that has some hits and misses; while some songs benefit from his unorthodox inclusions ("Better", "There Was A Time"), songs like "Madagascar" and "If The World" arguably take a hit from his additions. The album is also pretty heavily front-loaded: the best tracks come at the beginning, more or less, leaving the back end of the album feeling pretty disappointing.
Also, the lyrics are...well, scattershot. While there are exceptions, like the title track, most of the songs are invariably about Axl Rose blaming the bastards who stiffed him, betrayed him, and slighted him (whether it be real or imagined). This singular lyrical focus does have places where it doesn't hinder the song, but it gets horrifically heavy-handed and hammy at points, verging on the point of pathetic when it backfires.
One final issue is that the album, in a strange way, has the feeling of still being unfinished. There are parts of songs that feel disjointed and out of place, like some of the transitions in "Street of Dreams". While nobody knows how much longer Axl would have continued to tinker with the album and its songs, it's strange that fifteen years did not shake a feeling of this somehow being incomplete. In listening to songs off this album again, it sometimes felt like he rushed to finish it in the end, and it's possible that this was more or less inevitable.
is ultimately a decent, though flawed, album. It's important to check your expectations at the door...while the band's name may be Guns N' Roses, this album is nothing like what preceded it, and it is neither a complete catastrophe nor an unequivocal masterpiece. The high points make it worth it, but be ready to wade through some weak tracks in the process.
+"Street of Dreams"