A couple of weeks ago I was just casually walking around, minding my own business, trying to live my life. And I saw plastered all over some scaffolding a poster advertising the upcoming release of "Chinese Democracy," the new Guns N' Roses album that has been seventeen years, multiple lineup changes, and seemingly a million different rumors (about the album, the songs, live appearances, and Axl's new cornrows) in the making. All I could think in that moment was, "I probably should care about this, but I'm not sure why or if I do at all." And then I thought, "that can't be right," but it may have been.
For a kid who grew up in the 80's and came of age in the 90's, I probably should have been more aware of GNR. I'm pretty sure my friends were aware of them, had their albums, knew the band members. I was a child sheltered from pop culture; my mother now laments that I've been "seduced by pop culture," and that fact that I heard her line and read it as a play on "seduced by the dark side of the Force" probably means that she's right. Either way, I remember once being transfixed by the video for "November Rain" during a clandestine after-school MTV session, but besides that GNR means absolutely nothing to me. I never thought Axl with his red bandana and leather pants was macho or cool, my musical tastes were in no way shaped by "Use Your Illusion," and I don't have any notions about how "Chinese Democracy" is supposed to sound and what it is supposed to mean. Which might make me the right person to weigh in on it.
First, a little more of the cultural side since I might know what I'm talking about. I really don't understand why more wasn't made of this. Guns N' Roses was once the biggest band on the planet, for God's sake. Aren't there thousands of fans out there who have been waiting for this album to come out? Haven't people been just dying for it? When I told someone else about the poster I had seen and mentioned the date on it, they responded first by saying the date must be wrong becuase albums are released on Tuesdays not Saturdays. Shouldn't the response have been something along the lines of either excitement that it was actually coming out after all this time or disgust for the same reason? I guess all the bullshit surrounding the album caught up with it in terms of the non-viability of a concrete release date around which to spin extensive hype. Or maybe the lack of awareness was because the album is supposedly being sold exclusively at Best Buy, although I'm not sure what Best Buy thinks "exclusive" means since I downloaded it from iTunes. Either way, it can't be good that on the week it was released, Rolling Stone, still the theoretical rock journal of record, ran as its cover story a list of the 100 Greatest Singers ever as written by other musicians (let me save you some time, Aretha Franklin is #1).
And where is Axl for all of this? After all the years, band mates, studios and money that went into the making of this album, you'd think he would be basking in the glow of its release, but nothing. At least, not obviously so, and that's interesting to me as someone who reads Axl as being incredibly narcissistic, though for no particular reason. Maybe he doesn't want to cloud what the album is with his presence, although without him I'm not sure it's much of anything. But then again, I kind of liked it.
I'm not a rock critic, so I'm not gonna launch into a discussion that includes phrases like "shredding guitars" or "crushing baselines" (I'll leave that sort of thing for Chuck Klosterman), but I've been listening to the album for the last two hours and I enjoy it. The songs are everything they theoretically should be, they have nice melodies, guitars that power you through and plenty of Axl singing in his falsetto between harsher moments. I barely have an idea of how a GNR album is supposed to sound, and even less of an idea of this one should, but it works. Every song is a neat little encapsulation of everything GNR is suppsed to be, each background wail and mid-song piano solo are everything that GNR has always been, and while I accept the notion of that being classic and authentic, the sound is so unbelievably the same that it's almost startling. Other people have written about the hip-hop underpinings and world beat influences, but all I hear are the 80's. Maybe it's my untrained ear, I fully accept that possibility, but if you told me I was actually listening to GNR's first album, I wouldn't find that all too hard to believe. It's not exactly a cliché of itself, but it's so close to center all the same, entirely on the nose. The intervening seventeen years seemingly haven't developed Axl's sensibilites at all. It's entirely possible that it's a throwback, and a comment on the enduring qualities of pop metal where piano plays a key role. Since the opposite seems to mean that this is all Axl can do, I'm not displeased settling on throwback.
However, at the same time, it's so much a throwback it's almost a parody, but much more serious. It's as if a GNR cover band decided to do original material, but all they know how to do is sound like GNR. As someone without an extensive frame of reference on the subject, the album sounds exactly the way GNR is supposed to sound, but without being authentic. On the other hand, maybe GNR never was. Maybe they were more about the posturing, the image, the aura than anything else. I don't mean that this makes them a bad band, it just makes them par for the course as far as the 80's is concerned, when seemingly every artistic expression was more about style than substance. In this way, maybe "Chinese Democracy" is actually perfect, the final result being a fitting end to the saga of it all. Like everything that came before, it is a thing that should be meaningful but just plain isn't. But that doesn't mean I didn't like it.
Come on, Eldrick.