With the very rarest of exceptions, rock 'n' roll is a dish best served steaming hot, with as little delay as possible between the inspiration of the creative oven and the final garnishing of the finished album. Even some of its most celebrated epics--"Led Zeppelin IV," "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" by Genesis or "The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd--had relatively quick, no-muss, no-fuss origins. So even if many of their diehard fans argue that the long-, long-, long-awaited sixth studio album by the corporate enterprise that 46-year-old Indiana native W. Axl Rose still calls Guns N' Roses should be judged only on the merits of its grooves, the back story must be mentioned.
The rock world, or at least a significant and still proudly mullet-wearing portion of it, has been waiting 17 years for this album, which already had racked up production costs of $13 million by March 2005, prompting the New York Times to call it "the most expensive album never made." Now, with 14 studios and dozens of hired hands listed in the credits--none of whom, save Rose, were members of the group that released the phenomenal, 28-million-selling "Appetite for Destruction" in 1987--"Chinese Democracy" is finally here... or rather, it's waiting at the nearest Best Buy, which, in another of the currently in vogue slaps in the face to the struggling survivors among the mom-and-pop record stores, is the only retailer that has been authorized to sell it.
First, the good news: This is not the music world's "Heaven's Gate" or "Ishtar," two of the most notorious and costly Hollywood flops ever made. Now, the perhaps inevitable bad: It is rock's "The Godfather: Part III," a late-career installment in a beloved franchise that we never thought we'd see, which evokes just enough of what we enjoyed in the distant past to prompt an occasional smile, but nowhere near enough to stand as an equal artistic accomplishment, or even a particularly satisfying experience.
The biggest problem is the same one that marred the band's last batch of original material, the two "Use Your Illusion" discs released in 1991. Determined to be hailed as more than just a "mere" hard-rocker, Rose began to worry enitrely too much about his reputation as an artiste, incorporating diverse experimentation in other genres for which he had little feeling or talent, and cluttering things up with a thoroughly annoying and distracting brand of orchestral bombast. At their best--and "Sweet Child o' Mine" always will be the classic example--the Gunners evoked a poignant and dramatic grandeur with the simplest of ingredients, chief among them what Rolling Stone called Rose's "rusted-siren" wail, but just as importantly the dual guitars of tempering forces and co-songwriters Slash and Izzy Stradlin. The grand pianos, soaring string sections and progressive-rock aspirations just weren't necessary.
About half of the 14 songs here wear out their welcome shortly after you're done marveling at all of the filigree. Under the Mellotrons, vocal choirs, French horns, Indian sitars, Spanish guitars and Martin Luther King, Jr., "Cool Hand Luke" and "Braveheart" samples, there just isn't enough song in songs such as "If the World," "There Was a Time" and "Madagascar" to make a significant impact. Even worse are hair-metal ballads such as "This I Love" and "Street of Dreams," which find Rose reaching for Elton John and Queen, but missing even Bon Jovi to arrive at plain irritating and almost unlistenable.
If these tracks represented the entire disc, "Chinese Democracy" would be even worse than the musical equivalent of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as lounge singers crossing the desert on camelback. But the album is redeemed in part by its most straightforward, hardest-rocking and simplest moments--the opening assault of the title track, "Shackler's Revenge" and "Better," along with "Scraped," "Riad N' the Bedouins" and "I.R.S." later on--though even these require us to accept that "simple" can describe a song with five or six studio guitarists shredding simultaneously.
Needless to say, it all makes for an extremely inconsistent ride best programmed selectively on your iPod--pretty ironic, considering Rose's disdain for downloading--though his lyrical themes are, as always, familiar from track to track, focusing on his unwavering belief in his ability to survive/succeed and his devotion to self-reliance. He'll never admit that he needs his old mates, though he does pine after that woman who done him wrong, and while the album-closing "Prostitute" is supposed to be one of these lost-love songs, it's hard not to hear it as a statement about the 17-year wait for this music.
"It seems like forever and a day/If my intentions were misunderstood/Please be kind/I've done all I should," Rose sings. Actually, Axl, you've done way too much, and for that reason, two out of four stars is as kind as I honestly can be.