The news lede is simply: OMG. It's actually here. After 17 years, a reported $13 million, and countless rock critic invocations of Howard Hughes, white whales, and Fitzcarraldo, a new Guns N' Roses record will be released on Sunday. Chinese Democracy's album credits reflect the epic slog that brought it into existence, listing 14 recording studios, five guitarists, and multiple "digital editors." (British record producer Youth is cited for the "initial arrangement suggestion" on the song "Madagascar.") But the telling liner note detail is the absence of all but one of Guns N' Roses' founding members. There is no Slash, no Izzy Stradlin, no Duff McKagan. The last time a collection of original Guns N' Roses songs was released, it was 1991. Barack Obama was graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law; GNR was the biggest rock band on earth. In the years since, Axl Rose has dithered, tinkered, and obsessed; feuded with Kurt Cobain and Tommy Hilfiger; appropriated Christina Aguilera's cornrow extensions; and watched the zeitgeist, and his band mates, leave him behind.
So make no mistake: Chinese Democracy is an Axl Rose solo record. The surprise, given Rose's reputation for volatility, is how buttoned up it is. From the first moments of the title track—an eerie swirl of siren peals and chattering voices that gives way to brutish power chords—Chinese Democracy is slick and airtight, with production values that are up-to-the-minute. The sound is heavily compressed in the contemporary style, and the music's frayed edges have been smoothed away; every kick-drum thump and keyboard tinkle gives off the glint of a thousand mouse clicks. Those digital editors earned their paychecks.
It's ultra-professional, yes—but oh my, is it busy. Guns N' Roses always mixed up its hard rock with other stuff: pop-metal, boogie-blues, Queen-inspired glam, schmaltzy piano pop in the Elton John mode. But Chinese Democracy ups the fussiness factor a hundredfold—call it hard rococo. By the sound of it, Rose simply dumped every musical idea he'd ever had, every genre he'd ever heard, into his Pro Tools. And stirred.
The result is songs like "If the World," which starts with Flamenco guitar noodling and segues into a desultory '70s funk groove, before piling on strings, wailing guitars, and a variety of showy digital effects. "Madagascar" has more orchestral strings, and brass fanfares, and drum loops, and ripping guitar solos, and drifting cloudbanks of industrial rock noise. Did I mention the samples from Cool Hand Luke? And the snippets of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?
What Rose is trying to express with this excess is unclear. It is tempting to read a song like "Catcher in the Rye" as a statement about Rose's own Salinger-like artistic stagnation and reputation as a recluse. ("If I thought that I was crazy/ Well, I guess I'd have more fun," Rose sings.) But several songs suggest that Chinese Democracy is first and foremost a record about the torment of making Chinese Democracy. In "This I Love," a chiming ballad that boasts the album's most shapely melody, Rose pleads: "It seemed like forever and a day/ If my intentions are misunderstood/ Please be kind, I've done all I should." "Sorry" is more defiant: "You thought they'd make me behave and submit/ What were you thinking .../ You don't know why/ I won't give in/ To hell with the pressure/ I'm not caving in."