Overcooked Chinese Democracy

chinese-democracy“Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn” – Chuck Klosterman.

I’m not quite sure why I’m writing this. Never mind how absurd it is that this thing actually exists. Mostly, there’s really nothing that I can say about Chinese Democracy that will be half as funny and fascinating as Klosterman’s brilliant review of the record that ran over at the AV Club earlier this week. And yet, it would feel odd to just sit back and let this pop culture moment go uncommented upon. If Chinese Democracy has given me over a decade of morbid comic fascination, the least I can give it in return is a couple hundred words.

I should preface this by saying that Guns ‘N’ Roses were never really my bag. I was too young for Appetite for Destruction to rock my world, although I was keenly aware that the older kids a few grades ahead of me were cranking the record in their Walkmans and that their mothers hated that fact. When I finally did start listening to music in the mid-90s, I never really had a ‘metal’ phase so GnR was to me, at best, a few great singles that played well at parties. Looking over their thin discography in hindsight, they were kind of a one-album wonder: Appetite holds up well, but subsequent records chose bombast over brashness and feel overblown to the point of self-parody. Fans with a metal streak are probably used to such exaggeration, but it was never to my tastes.

But Chinese Democracy has always fascinated me. It wasn’t just that it took 14 years to make; music nerds are used to enigmatic recluses struggling to pull a follow-up record together (paging Kevin Shields/Jeff Mangum!). No, it’s that so much of the struggle to finish the record has been played out in public. There was the entire original lineup leaving the band. There was the End of Days soundtrack. There was Buckethead. There was the (awful) 2002 MTV Video Music Awards performance. There was the 2002 world tour, aborted after only a handful of shows. There was the rumoured $13 million price tag, along with the bonuses offered to Rose if he’d get it done on time. There was delay after delay. There was Dr. Pepper’s challenge.

Now, it’s just a record.

Over two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the (premature) rumours that Weezer was breaking up that summed up my feelings on what I enjoy most about pop/rock music:

My point is that great pop music thrives and survives on the tension between order and chaos, between craft and circumstance. When song becomes science, when it chooses calculation to the loss of spontaneity, it loses its passion, its soul and, worst of all, its ability to connect with an audience. On some level, pop songs need to feel like they are being played for the first time, a special performance written and performed especially for the listener to soundtrack that very moment in their life.

Chinese Democracy does not sound like it’s being played for the first time. It’s an album that’s impossible to separate from its history – not only because the history is so compelling, but because every sound, every note feels weighed down by it. For every riff that clicks, there’s an accompaniment that’s forced. For every primal scream that Axl lets loose, there’s an overproduced overdub that feels cold and computerized. For every blistering guitar part, there’s an overblown string section to match.

I was chatting with Adam about the record last night, and he made a great point: Chinese Democracy sounds like a huge, ambitious record designed to change the world as it was in 1999, but is unfortunately being released a decade too late. Hell, I wonder if there’s a single song on this record that’s been added in recent years. It wouldn’t surprise me if Axl has had these 14 songs laid out in this order for years now, working and reworking them to death.

For some, Chinese Democracy’s anachronistic streak will be part of the appeal, but it just feels weird and strange to me. I share some of Klosterman’s fascination with how Axl’s neuroses play through the record, from the questionable production choices to the self-referential lyrics. But he’s coming at the record as a fan, someone who wants to believe that Axl can rebuild Guns ‘N’ Roses into a relevant, enjoyable rock and roll band again. The fans, the believers, will likely find Chinese Democracy worthwhile, it not necessarily worth the wait. I’m not a fan, though, and I doubt that the stale, overcooked Chinese Democracy will make me – or anyone else – into one.

Listen: Guns ‘N’ Roses – “Chinese Democracy” (stream @ MySpace)

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