You had to see it right there in the shops to believe it. After 15 years, $13 million dollars, a revolving door of contributors and so many false starts it had become its own myth, Chinese Democracy, the long-awaited new album from Guns N’ Roses, was finally out in the world. The better part of two decades after Use Your Illusion I and II, it served as the first new GN’R studio album for a whole generation of rock fans, and would mean that Axl Rose could finally answer the questions that had been following him around for all those years in the wilderness. Questions like: who the fuck was actually on it? What does a Guns album without Slash sound like? And, most importantly, would it live up to 15 years of expectation and controversy?
Perhaps that last point is where most people’s assessment of Chinese Democracy is a little skew-whiff. Really, the question should never have been whether it would live up to the expectation, but whether it could have. How can you possibly give an objective opinion of an album that was already so tainted by delays that it has since become the measuring stick for MIA musical ventures? And that’s not to mention the fact that a Guns N’ Roses album without, well, pretty much all of Guns N’ Roses, is going to be greeted by unprecedented cynicism from even the most battle-hardened Axl fanboy.
Upon release in 2008, reviews were decidedly mixed. Rolling Stone described Chinese Democracy (opens in new tab) as a “great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record”, awarding it 4 out of 5 stars. The Guardian (opens in new tab) gave it a solid but unspectacular 3 stars, stating that it “wears its agonising gestation like a badge of honour.” Many were less kind: Pitchfork gave the album a kicking (opens in new tab), describing it as “prosaic letdown”, while Hammer’s own reviewer gave the record a measly 5/10, bluntly asking, “where’s the swagger? The danger?”
Commercially, the album did pretty well – debuting at number 2 and 3 in the UK and US respectively, eventually turning Platinum – but was deemed a disappointing performance overall, especially given its lofty production bill. It quickly slumped back down album charts after the initial hype faded, doing little to convince fans that Axl was justified in seizing control of the band and making it his own pet project in the first place. The new tracks rarely garnered much of a response live, either – even the sight of Slash solo-ing the fuck out of Better on the recent reunion shows provided a paltry reaction compared to a Rocket Queen or a You Could Be Mine.
And what a shame that is. Because here’s the truth of the matter: take away the circumstances of its creation and the context of its release, and Chinese Democracy slams. It’s a damn good album – fuck it, it’s a great album, and occasionally exceptional. It’s an explosive, fantastical, multi-multilayered rock ‘n’ roll opera, but more importantly than that: it’s absolutely stacked with great songs.
Let’s take it track by track. Chinese Democracy might not be on a Welcome To The Jungle level as an album opener (come on, what is?), but it’s an absolute beast of a song in its own right – a snarling, sarcastic, proudly messy banger underpinned by a riff dragged straight out of an LA gutter. Shackler’s Revenge follows: a claustrophobic, eccentric mish-mash of sparring sounds, with a particularly loopy, industrial-metal-on-crap-speed pre-chorus suggesting that Axl was binging on Nine Inch Nails at some point in the album’s lengthy conception. And it works! Better is up next: a song packing a chorus so meaty even the most cynical GN’R nostalgist can’t possibly deny it, with some particularly worthy guitar work from Robin Finck.
After that comes what might just be the centrepiece of the whole record: a triple-whammy of power ballads worthy of any lighters-or-phones-in-the-air moment. Street Of Dreams, with a piano line straight out of the Elton John book of songwriting, and If The World, its flourishes of flamenco guitar and scatty percussion bathed in a warm wash of strings, are both anthems worthy of the GN’R moniker. But it’s There Was A Time – the best track on the record – that really steals the show. A stirring, strings-powered colossus, it’s the kind of song that’d have people slathering if it was released under the umbrella of a Use Your Illusion III in 1995. If you’re keeping score, that’s six straight-up screamers all dished out one after the other.
The album admittedly takes a slight dip here – Catcher In The Rye is another decent ballady number but a step below its predecessors. while Scraped and Riad N’ The Bedouins feel like two sides of a coin found down the back of Axl’s sofa, even if the latter has some interesting, self-deprecating lyricism going on. Then, however, comes the outstanding Sorry – an embittered, bile-spitting Western waltz that sees Axl at his most typically defiant, his goading vocals propelled by the heaviest riff on the album.
I.R.S. is a (relatively) simplistic but effective rocker that fans had been used to hearing live for a couple of years before the album actually dropped, while Madagascar – an impassioned horns, strings and kitchen sink epic – had been knocking around since way back in 2001. In truth, perhaps the latter would have been the best place to let Chinese Democracy finish, as the two tracks that follow – the overwrought This I Love and messy but dramatic Prostitute – are decent but not quite in the same league.
Still, though: at its very worst Chinese Democracy is merely ‘OK’, while at its best it’s nothing short of fantastic. There are a flurry of songs that should stay in GN’R setlists for years to come, and moments that none of the other members of Guns have managed to match in any of their time away from the fold. If this had been released as an Axl Rose solo record in the aftermath of a more amicable Guns N’ Roses split, it’d have been embraced with open arms.
Actually, I’ll go one better: if this was the album that the now-reunited lineup decided to put out in 2019, it’d be heralded as a thunderous comeback and end up topping a ton of end-of-year-lists. You know I’m right. So, forget the background noise and give Chinese Democracy the credit it deserves: a killer rock ‘n’ roll record with scope, ambition and, most importantly of all, kickass songs.