Saturday, October 23, 2010

In Defense Of Chinese Democracy

On November 23rd, 2008 Guns N' Roses finally released their heavily hyped, nearly mythical album Chinese Democracy.  After over 15 years of leaked tracks, pushed-back release dates, lineup overhauls, and cancelled tours, the album had become a punchline in the mainstream media.  There was literally no way that Axl Rose & co.'s 70-minute opus could possibly justify the amount of time and money spent on it, and the best that most people hoped for was an entertaining trainwreck.

But the actual response to the album was strangely muted.  Early reviews were largely mixed, with many critics damning Chinese Democracy with "its surprisingly good" praise, and the more negative write-ups predictably focusing more on Axl Rose's craziness than on the music itself.  The general consensus was that the album was neither the masterpiece that some people hoped for or the disaster that it could've been.  Guns N' Roses didn't manage to rewrite rock history, but they also didn't embarass themselves by aiming for an instantly dated nu-metal sound or by trying to recapture the bluesy hard rock of their glory days.  Listeners wanted an album that either rose to ecstatic heights or fell to an extreme low, but what they heard was an okay album that they'd listen to once or twice and then discard.

But GNR's troubled LP deserves better than that.  Two years after anyone cares about it, Chinese Democracy holds up as a truly strong modern rock record, boasting an eclectic group of tracks that (mostly) cohere into a satifsying whole.  Few recent pop releases can match this album's scope or level of ambition; even if Axl Rose only accomplished half of the things he set out to do on Chinese Democracy, the sheer audacity of some of the choices he made ought to be applauded.  But the album seems likely to be forgotten, for regretable reasons that are, in some cases, only tangentially related to its actual content.


Axl Rose
Nobody likes Axl Rose.  Even if he was as talented as he seems to think he is, Rose would still be a walking embodiment of the worst excesses of old-school rock stars, which is frankly not a good look for anyone over the age of 40.  His lyrics suggest that he thinks of himself as the last paragon of virtue in a corrupt world where everybody is out to make him conform.  Unlike self-pitying superstar Eminem, Rose lacks the lyrical wit to make his relentless misantrhopy and paranoia compelling.  It isn't uncommon for rock vocalists to lack a sense of humor about themselves, but Rose's persecution complex is impossible for anyone but himself to relate to.  It's hard to feel sorry for someone whose biggest problem is finishing an endlessly delayed album, but virtually every lyric on Chinese Democracy is either a triumphant "I told you we could finish this!" kiss-off, or a bratty dis to an unnamed collective of haters (critics, former bandmates, ex-girlfriends).  Rose's persecution mania reaches its nadir (or height, depending on how ironically you are enjoying his album) in the middle of the track "Madagascar," when he throws samples from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech into a song that is otherwise about how Rose won't be swayed by detractors.  Here, Rose somehow conflates his struggles to get an album off the ground with the decades of oppression faced by an entire race of people.

And yet, Rose is undeniably an astonishingly talented vocalist.  I can't think of a single other rock vocalist who could cover the range that he does on these 14 tracks.  Aside from the usual post-Robert Plant yelping, we get some operatic emoting, some weird deep growls, a few hints of Rose's choirboy past, and everything in between.  I wouldn't say that Rose's vocal abilities justify his megalomania, but they do largely make up for his lyrical deficiencies.

Confounding the Notion of Art as Commodity
In our instant-gratification media world, where even unreleased intellectual property is often only a click away, we feel that we are entitled to listen to our music the way we want to, when we want to.  The emergence of music downloading that occured during the recording of Chinese Democracy only increased listeners' feeling that Axl Rose "owed" us a finished product.  Rose probably did owe Geffen an album; if the rumors of a $13 million recording budget are true,  then Rose and his associates were certainly behaving irresponsibly and showing disrespect to their benefactors.  But why should listeners care about this business matter?  Artists do not have a responsibility to give their fans what they want.  Besides, the only original member of Guns N' Roses involved with Chinese Democracy was Axl Rose, so it isn't as if long-time fans had any reason to expect, much less demand, a return of the sound they loved. 

The Baggage of Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses were one of the most popular and critically acclaimed bands of the late-'80s and early-'90s.  They occupy an odd place in the pop canon, being too hard-edged to fit in with the hair metal crowd yet too enveloped in old-fashioned rock excess to seem relevant after Nirvana.  Looking back at the Appetite for Destruction era group now, they seem like a competent but juvenile rock band with an unusually versatile lead singer, an above average lead guitarist, and an occasional knack for writing catchy arena rock songs.  Appetite was overrated by the mainstream press back in 1987, but the band clearly took the praise to their heads.  They were certainly taking themselves too seriously when they released the monstrously ambitious twin Use Your Illusion albums in 1991, where they attempted dramatic multi-part suites that pushed their glorified bar band chops past their breaking point.

There was nowhere else for the original group to go artistically, so it's probably for the best that the rotating cast of musicians on Chinese Democracy doesn't attempt to mimic the expected "Guns N' Roses" sound.  For the most part, the new sound reaches a satisfying middle ground between the Use Your Illusion group in "November Rain"/"Estranged" mode and a more daring and adventurous entity.  No one can take the memorable riff of "Sweet Child 'O Mine" away from Slash, but he couldn't come close to pulling off the thrilling avant-garde guitar pyrotechnics that Buckethead, Robin Finck, and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal deliver on nearly every track of Chinese Democracy.  For better and for worse, the new group does not play it safe. Would anyone actually rather listen to Velvet Revolver than this?

The Critical Bias Toward "Authenticity"
Music critics tend to place more value on the immediate pleasures of songs (melody, vocals) than on their more esoteric virtues (tone, musicianship).  One of the biggest criticisms of Chinese Democracy is that it has a studio-constructed, Pro Tools-assisted sound.  While it is true that a more direct, "live" sound can have a visceral impact that a more overdub-heavy, processed sound can't achieve, there is no reason beyond personal preference to value one over the other.  Setting aside the fact that "authenticity" is a nebulous concept to begin with, there is arguably more skill involved in constructing an artificial sound world than there is in simply capturing a "live" feel.

Much of the pleasure of Chinese Democracy is found in sorting out the details of its dense, elaborate arrangements and mixes.  This isn't the kind of entertainment that settles in on the first listen; it requires more attention than many people give music in the IPod era, and it doesn't really work as background music.  It also isn't the easily accessible, instantly hooky heavy blues-rock that old-guard GNR fans are used to.  But the thick layers of electric guitars, multi-tracked vocals, electronic elements, and occasional unexpected details like flamenco guitar form an overwhelming tapestry that is often over-the-top but rarely less than interesting.  Sure, there aren't many songs here that are as immediately memorable as the Guns N' Roses singles of old - no jukebox surfer is going to choose "Riad N' the Bedouins" over "Paradise City" - but the new sound is infinitely more ambitious, and repays repeated listens in a way that the old music doesn't.

The Guilty Pleasure Factor
A lot of Chinese Democracy is silly.  Every track is overblown and epic, as if Axl couldn't think of anything that he didn't want to try, and then couldn't figure out which details did or didn't work.  "Scraped" sets an earnest cry of "believe in yourself" against a goofy funk-metal backdrop.  The dis track "Sorry" sounds like it was recorded in the mansion in Sunset Boulevard.  "Madagascar" contains a credit for "additional orchestra."  "This I Love" is so melodramatic that Meat Loaf would be embarrassed to sing it.  Rose's insistence on including everything he enjoys about music in every track is consistently laughable, but it's surprising how often Chinese Democracy comes close to living up to its insane ambition, especially on its superior first half.

Cultural Misinterpretations of Perfectionism
Perfectionism in art is often misunderstood.  Stanley Kubrick's incredibly lenghty film productions were viewed as the actions of an indecisive control freak.  Miles Davis' gnomic instructions to his collaborators made some people suspect that he had no idea what he wanted to achieve.  On some level, Kubrick probably was a control freak and Davis probably couldn't have explicitly spelled out what sound he was looking for, but these aren't the same things as artists having no direction.  Kubrick and Davis were trying to surprise themselves, to go above and beyond what their intellects could imagine.  Their collaborators, having been exhausted from endless retakes or bewildered by ambiguous instructions, would sometimes come up with things that were more interesting than anything Kubrick or Davis could've possibly imagined on their own.

No one could reasonably argue that Axl Rose is as talented as Kubrick or Davis, but, all proportions aside, Rose's perfectionism is rooted in similar reasoning.  Rose may not have known exactly what he wanted Chinese Democracy to be, but he was reaching for something even bigger and better than he could've imagined.  In many respects, he overreached - his ambition to create an album's-worth of "Bohemian Rhapsody"-esque ultra-songs gives the album a sense of creative constipation - but it is exciting to hear him go for it anyway.  Even if it isn't an artistic landmark like 2001:  A Space Odyssey or In a Silent Way, Chinese Democracy is a very interesting rock album that deserves some respect.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I've just been reading Rolling Stone mag's original review of it and they rated it highly and wrote about it in a way that chimed with me!