No album in recent memory arrives carrying such a mountain-sized load of expectation as Guns N’ Roses’s Chinese Democracy. Thirteen million dollars and 14 years is a massive (and risky) investment in an industry suffering from dwindling sales. Aside from Axl Rose, Chinese Democracy features none of the original members of GNR, with a veritable army of musicians enlisted to construct what is more a colossal solo affair than a collaborative effort. The realization of Rose’s vision, the album’s failure or success rests squarely on his shoulders.
While not the sprawling musical Hindenburg that the Use Your Illusion albums were, Chinese Democracy is a huge record. The songs are grandiose, overwrought, overblown, superfluous and occasionally among the greatest songs Rose has recorded to date. Nothing here is as lean, mean or unclean as “Paradise City” or “It’s So Easy,” but the album truly excels when Rose allows his team to push beyond GNR conventions, such as the flamenco flair and smooth funk flavor of “If the World” and the slow-moving majesty of “Madagascar,” in which Rose wails convincingly like a grizzly old blues man.
Though Slash is gone, the various guitarists filling his shoes more than compensate: Buckethead (also long gone, though his performances remain on the record) presumably provides the Tom Morello-like squawks, scrapes and squeaks toward the end of the title track; the riveting “Riad N’ the Bedouins” includes jagged melodic chords that recall At the Drive-In at their best; “Better” features melodic yet experimental riffing, an unusual trip-hop beat introduction, and Rose’s trademark lyrical cadence and slithery boogie of yore. “Sorry” demonstrates that Rose can still craft a proper ballad. Akin to Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the song rolls along slowly, with drip-drop wah-wah guitar notes and graceful percussion. When Rose moans, “I’m sorry for you, not sorry for me,” it’s one of the album’s more naked and vulnerable moments.
“Street of Dreams” begins innocuously enough, with the tinkling of a grand piano, but then Rose begins affecting an odious vibrato accent that sounds more like the voice of the rock-opera puppet Dracula from Forgetting Sarah Marshall than Vincent Price. Particularly egregious is the title tune, which grafts nonsensical lyrics like “Blame it on the Falun Gong” atop routine cock-rock to form a negligible song that wouldn’t make onto a Velvet Revolver b-side. While the band’s label, fans and a handful of rock journalists would like to hail this album as the Second Coming of Rock, the reality is that Chinese Democracy is neither a musical resurrection nor the audio equivalent of Ishtar.