With the Holy Grail scheduled to drop in a mere two days, I had planned to post a magnum opus in tribute. Others have beaten me to the punch. The best thing I have read so far (and I’ve read everything) is by Chuck Klosterman over at The Onion A/V Club. Say what you will about Klosterman, but he’s always stuck by Axl; even in his (near constant) ribbing, the genuine affection was always clear. There may be many, many amusing things about Guns N Roses, but at the end of the day, they are not a joke. Not to him, and not to me.
So Klosterman nailed (my feelings about) Chinese Democracy, and more relevantly to this blog, he nailed something important about Axl Rose. Pay close attention to how he describes Axl’s relationship with Expectation aka Identity aka Criticism aka Judgment aka The Law of Appetite For Destruction. Then think of any paralysis you’ve experienced in your life and be comforted by how much it has been dwarfed here.
Oh and while you do so, you can stream the entire album over at the Gunners’ myspace page. Here’s Klosterman:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I’ve been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I’ve thought about this record more than I’ve thought about China, and maybe as much as I’ve thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can’t psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.
But the more meaningful reason Chinese Democracy is abnormal is because of a) the motives of its maker, and b) how those motives embargoed what the definitive product eventually became. The explanation as to why Chinese Democracy took so long to complete is not simply because Axl Rose is an insecure perfectionist; it’s because Axl Rose self-identifies as a serious, unnatural artist. He can’t stop himself from anticipating every possible reaction and interpretation of his work. I suspect he cares less about the degree to which people like his music, and more about how it is taken, regardless of the listener’s ultimate judgment. This is why he was so paralyzed by the construction of Chinese Democracy—he can’t write or record anything without obsessing over how it will be received, both by a) the people who think he’s an unadulterated genius, and b) the people who think he’s little more than a richer, red-haired Stephen Pearcy. All of those disparate opinions have identical value to him. So I will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Axl Rose would hope, and that makes it significantly less simple. At this juncture in history, rocking is not enough.
Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, “What was Axl doing here?” but “What did Axl think he was doing here?” The tune “If The World” sounds like it should be the theme to a Roger Moore-era James Bond movie, all the way down to the title. On “Scraped,” there’s a vocal bridge that sounds strikingly similar to a vocal bridge from the 1990 Extreme song “Get The Funk Out.” On the aforementioned “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.” Often, I don’t even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.
On “Madagascar,” he samples MLK (possible restitution for “One In A Million”?) and (for the second time in his career) the movie Cool Hand Luke. Considering that the only people who will care about Rose’s preoccupation with Cool Hand Luke are those already obsessed with his iconography, the doomed messianic message of that film must deeply (and predictably) resonate with his very being. But how does that contribute to “Madagascar,” a meteorological metaphor about all those unnamed people who wanted to stop him from making Chinese Democracy in the insane manner he saw fit? Sometimes listening to this album feels like watching the final five minutes of the Sopranos finale. There’s no acceptable answer to these types of hypotheticals.
Still, I find myself impressed by how close Chinese Democracy comes to fulfilling the absurdly impossible expectation it self-generated, and I not-so-secretly wish this had actually been a triple album. I’ve maintained a decent living by making easy jokes about Axl Rose for the past 10 years, but what’s the final truth? The final truth is this: He makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end. Axl Rose put so much time and effort into proving that he was super-talented that the rest of humanity forgot he always had been. And that will hurt him. This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.