Chicago Sun-Times
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Guns N' Roses, "Chinese Democracy" (Universal) [2 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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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.

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7 Comments

Kudos for this review Jim.

Easily one of the most fair and honest reviews of the album i've read to date, and the one I can agree most with.

Approve this message, John McCain did, LOL

"street of Dreams(aka The Blues)" and "Madagascar" are two of my favorites on this album.

I find it interesting that Axl does what he wants, when he wants and does not just give in to the industry and make canned music like so many of the bands today do.

I agree it has been a long road and the album will never be good enough to justify the wait, but it is not my job to judge a man.

P.S. Your first paragraph ends by complaining about the bands line-up. You can't fairy evaluate any album when you start off like that.

I don't really know what anybody was expecting of this record. I don't even know what I was expecting, to be honest. But frankly, it's fine. It's not great; it's not awful. A 2-star review is about right (I might've given it two and a half simply for not being as bad as those horrible poseurs in Velvet Revolver). But it's nothing new; it sounds essentially like Use Your Illusion III. Somehow, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; I liked a handful of tracks on the first two installments.

And Jim, I'm not with you on the power ballads. I always thought GNR did a better job on them than Journey or Bon Jovi, mostly because Axl's heroes were Elton John and Freddie Mercury (y'know, ones that actually could write a decent ballad) rather than... well, I don't know who in the hell Journey was trying to be, but God, did they suck. At any rate, goofy and syrupy as it is, I really do like "Street of Dreams." I liked it when it was "Yesterdays" on Use Your Illusion II as well. Same goes with "Catcher in the Rye," which, to be honest, is the best thing ever to emerge under that title. And "Better," which I think is far more power-riff driven than "Street of Dreams," is catchy as hell.

Of course, there's the flipside, too, which has always been true of GNR records. "This I Love" and "If the World" are pretty awful. I also don't see what you do in the title track or "Shackler's Revenge." They're every bit the equals of anything Velvet Revolver has done, albeit with Rose's trademark wail instead of Scott Weiland's irritating Kurt Cobain/Mark Lanegan impression. But then, that's not much different than Appetite for Destruction or the Use Your Illusion albums, each of which was about half of a really cool, really ambitious, really catchy record... and half of a really boring, really stupid, really pointless one. So yeah, while I don't agree necessarily with your reasons, two out of four stars is pretty fair.

But you're still crazy not to enjoy the Queen throwback of "Street of Dreams." What can I say? I liked "November Rain," too.

wow. No mercy for the long-awaited "Chinese Democracy." My personal favorite off the record is "Street of Dreams," which had been under the working title of "The Blues" since I first heard the leaky versions months ago. As a GNR loyalist, I have thoroughly enjoyed much of everything they've packed into the stream of music. Many moons ago, for my own personal argument, one would find me frequently asking the question, "If you hadda make a choice between GNR and Metallica, who would you pick?" The response usually leaned towards Metallica. However, I thought the evolution of the band was very apparent as I heard during the "Use your Illusions" era and really appreciated those epic tracks, especially the trilogy of those lost-love lovely's "November Rain," "Don't Cry," and "Estranged." Not too many bands I was listening to were able to produce the kinda songs, however many instruments it took, that have the power, in whatever dramatic fashion, to make me "feel" that hard! The lyrical genius of Axl Rose was one of the most compelling elements of my youth that inspired me to use writing as a creative outlet. I coulda lived without the cover album "Spaghetti Incident," but even their versions of certain songs "Since I don't have you" or the hidden Manson-written track "Look at your game" was enough to make me sing along! In spite of the series of complications the band has suffered throughout the past many years, and yes I've been waiting too, I am so looking forward to adding "Chinese Democracy" to my collection. So whether I was "Slamdamcing with Mr.Brownstone" or Seeking the "Street of Dreams"...mullet or not, I am so happy the day has finally arrived! I predict that Axl, Slash, Duff, and Matt will re-connect. eventually. Good Read Jim. Many angles of assessment!

This reviewer needs a little less ego and a little more ear, I would take all of what they said in this review with a grain of salt! If you wanted a rehash of an old band trying to regain lost glory with ragged old sounding songs. This is not it! This album is an Instant Classic. Creativity and experimentation make this a must have. Axl truly delivers the goods with this album... It leaves who is in the band as irrelevant. This masterpiece was well worth the 17 year wait!! I LOVE IT!!!

The "wait" for the album seems to inflate every review I read. It's been 17 years since Use Your Illusion I and II were released. 15 years since the band stopped touring for Use Your Illusion I and II, and 14 years since GNR put out the 'holdover' punk cover album.

No one was waiting for anything back then.
If anything, the record is 10 years in the making... and maybe 8 years of actual waiting/anticipation.

creativity? everything on here has been done before... just not laid over top of each other

this album is for the ADHD generation

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