Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy

(Interscope)

In 2006, writer Chuck Klosterman published a spoof review of Chinese Democracy, an album that at that stage most observers believed would never see the light of day. He had a high old time imagining guest appearances by Johnny Marr and reggaeton covers of Thin Lizzy, but also made a serious point about an album that had then taken 12 years to make and reputedly cost $13m. "There is really only one way for Chinese Democracy to avoid utter and absolute failure," he wrote. "It needs to be the greatest rock album ever made."

That's the problem with spending so much and so long making an album. By default, it's a monumental folly: however good it is, it can't conceivably be good enough. Two years later, it's impossible for the music to be heard objectively, uncoupled from its background: the expense, the time, the departure of every founder member of Guns N' Roses bar frontman Axl Rose, the blogger facing jail for leaking tracks, Dr Pepper's offer to give everyone in America a free can if the album was released in 2008, the bizarre rotating cast that variously included Moby, Brian May, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and a guitarist wearing a KFC variety bucket on his head, who apparently refused to perform in the studio unless he was inside a specially constructed chicken coop.

Then again, Chinese Democracy clearly doesn't want you to view it objectively. The credits go on and on like an airport bonkbuster, painstakingly detailing the painstaking details: 14 studios, seven people credited for "additional Pro-Tools", six guitarists on one song alone. It wears its agonising gestation like a badge of honour, as if all this was not merely unavoidable but somehow necessary. In reality, the time and effort involved magnifies the album's shortcomings. You hear the lyrics of If the World - "if the world would end today, all the dreams we had would slip away, there's nothing more to say-ay-ay" - and think: bloody hell, is that best you could come up with? It's not like you haven't had time to think about it.

But even if you knew nothing of Chinese Democracy's history, you'd realise something was up. However much of the $13m was spent on mastering, it wasn't enough to stop it sounding like a compilation album. When Sorry recedes into the distance - a joyful event that, while the ballad trudges mirthlessly on, you start to panic is never actually going to take place - it's replaced by IRS, a rocker that conducts itself at a completely different volume, because it's a completely different band, possibly in a completely different decade. It would perhaps be unfair to call the album's lyrics - big on concepts like pullin' through, takin' your time and knowin' you ain't crazy no matter what they say - wildly solipsistic: plainly any listening multimillionare 80s hair metal frontmen struggling to complete a massively overdue, over-budget album are bound to feel a warm, inclusive tingle of identification.

The arrangements, meanwhile, are impossibly over-stuffed. Chinese Democracy is frequently as exhausting to listen to as it must have been to make, not least on the regular occasions when Rose, clearly unable to decide whether to have another verse or a widdly-woo guitar solo, opts to do both at the same time. Some tracks mark the way whole genres have risen and fallen in the time it took Rose to pull his finger out. If the World features echoes of trip-hop and nu metal, Shackler's Revenge bears the influence of the Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails, presumably because both were the latest thing at different points in its gestation. There Was a Time features brass, a choir, tribal drumming, cinematic strings, a hip-hop breakbeat, Tomorrow Never Knows-ish backwards tapes, a feedback-laden guitar solo and Rose's familiar wail. It should be noted that I am here describing only the first 20 seconds. After that, the arrangement gets a bit silly and overwrought. The songs are episodic, with endless key changes, although it's never entirely clear whether this is a brave attempt to break free of stultifying verse-chorus conformity, or just the flailing of a man who has absolutely no idea when to give it a rest. In fairness, it sounds like the former more often than the latter, for the simple reason that Rose keeps coming up with fabulous melodies, strong enough to hold songs like Better and Madagascar together, strong enough even to cut through the nonsense of There Was a Time.

Listening to them, you're struck by the thought that Chuck Klosterman might have been wrong. Chinese Democracy is clearly not the greatest rock album ever made, but nor is it an absolute and utter failure. The irony is, that for all the lavishing of money and time and technology, it's saved by something as old fashioned as a good tune.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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