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."
That's an Axl that Guns N' Roses fans know well: paranoid and spitting mad. But another Axl has gone missing on Chinese Democracy. In his heyday, Rose was a classic sex-symbol frontman, dreaming of a utopian Paradise City populated by babes, commanding "feel my-my-my-my serpentine," stalking arena stages in serpentine-strangling spandex biker shorts. The members of Guns N' Roses were not just archetypal rock Dionysians, they were the last great rock Dionysians—the end of a dynastic line stretching down from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith.
Of course, cock rock is not unproblematic, and its problems—musical, political, and, God knows, sartorial—are epitomized by the skeezy silliness of the '80s hair metal scene that produced GN'R. But listening to Chinese Democracy, and to the earlier Guns N' Roses records, one is reminded how much pure fun was sucked out of rock circa 1992, when the last poodlehead packed away his phallus and shuffled off of the Sunset Strip, surrendering the limelight to a succession of sad sacks: grunge rockers, post-grunge rockers, and the current crop of Radiohead- and Coldplay-influenced bands, whose whimpering falsetto vocals rather pointedly dramatize the music's reduced, um, virility.
Rose is 46 years old now, so diminished libido may be par for the course. On Chinese Democracy, his voice is still an amazing, bludgeoning instrument, rising from demonic low rumble to piercing banshee wail. But listen to the words he is singing: "Sometimes I feel like the world is on top of me/ Breaking me down with an endless monotony." "Don't ever try to tell me how much you care for me/ Don't ever try to tell me how you were there for me." "I've been brought down in this storm/ And left so far out from the storm/ That I can't find my way back/ My way anymore." The priapic rock god has become just another bummed-out white guy, bellowing his angst over noisy guitars.
Of course, in rock, the sexiness starts with sound, and spreads. There's no gainsaying the skill of the L.A. studio musicians whom Rose has been touring with in recent years. (Chinese Democracy is full of virtuoso shredding sure to please the Guitar Player magazine subscribers.) But the songs lack the rugged, sexy swing of the original GN'R. It was a band par excellence: Lead guitarist Slash was Rose's sidekick and foil; rhythm guitarist Stradlin was the hook-savvy secret songwriting weapon; bassist McKagan gave the music its fearsome thrust. I can't help wondering what, pardon the expression, a real Guns N' Roses record would sound like in 2008.
For those of us who will accept no substitutes, there is hope. Rumors have flown for years about the original GN'R lineup reforming; Stradlin and McKagan have mentioned the possibility in recent interviews. Given the money involved, it may eventually prove too tempting to pass up. At the very least, a shotgun reunion is certain to take place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012, Guns N' Roses' first year of rock-hall eligibility. That's just three years away, a blink of the eye in Axl time. As a philosopher once said—way back when, in the heady days of the first Bush administration—all we need is just a little patience.