A four part dispatch from guest contributor CT Terry.
Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” took the better part of two decades to record and release. It’s a dense, bewildering album that can’t be judged as a whole because there is so much going on, a lot of which is brilliant, but plenty of which is schlock. In an effort to figure out what is going on in this record, and to decide if I like it, I went through it, cataloging and responding to every part of every song. –CT Terry
Track 12: Madagascar
0:01 – Funereal horns.
0:27 – Strings, plus canned drums, and Axl singing in a deep, mournful voice over the horns. For once, the canned drums work pretty well.
0:35 – These sorta sound like the drums from “Back II Life” by Soul II Soul. My bad if you’re not in your early 30s and raised on effeminate, hip-hop influenced, top 40 club music.
0:42 – Axl’s singing about not being able to find his way back from somewhere. It’s refreshing to hear an “I” instead of a “you.”
1:05 – This could be the Reprise of “November Rain.” It’s really bleak sounding. This section of the album is pretty sad and lonely.
1:08 – A BIG drum fill.
1:11 – Electric guitars and swirling strings. Wordless wailing, which trumps a chorus with half a dozen instances of the word “you.”
1:35 – Strings, canned drums.
1:39 – The verse starts again. “Bless them that tear down my soul.” Wow. Biblical.
2:23 – Big drums, strings, an actual refrain.
2:48 – So bleak sounding. Like a graveyard at the beginning of winter or something. I’m not making fun here. This is good.
2:52 – Booming drums break, plus soundbytes. Is that MLK? And another “Cool Hand Luke” sample? As you could guess, there’s some shredding in the background, because Buckethead is racist and wants to drown out MLK. Obviously.
4:00 – The strings over the funkyish drums is pretty Led Zeppelin.
4:25 – The chorus again, after a minute and a half of samples and stuff, which would seem excessive in any context besides a skullfuckingly epic hard rock album.
5:12 – Fade to strings and canned drums.
5:19 – Then the funeral horns.
Summary: A good, dramatic, well-arranged sad song. Great use of strings. I’m liking the last third of this album a lot more than I remembered. While listening to “Chinese Democracy,” I’m making mental notes of the good songs, so that I can play them for people who never gave this album a chance. The problem is that even the best songs are still so overblown and histrionic that they could easily be dismissed as dinosaur rock. I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s an easy fall-back for detractors.
Potential video scenario: Axl in a black wool coat turning his back on someone’s grave on a gray day in November.
Track 13: This I Love
0:01 – Buzzing synths and strings fade in nicely from the ending of the previous song.
0:14 – Piano and Axl in dramatic popular song mode. “Now I don’t know why/she wouldn’t say goodbye…”
0:28 – Vocals kicked up a notch.
0:32 – Strings.
0:55 – I remember this song. It was in “Les Miz.”
1:08 – Instead of throwing in some horrendous electric guitars, Axl just elected to scream over the piano. There’s gotta be a happy medium somewhere.
1:29 – Strings. This one’s about lost love, by the way.
1:50 – Verse with strings.
2:02 – Half a dozen Axls harmonizing out of nowhere.
2:11 – Oh, there’s the electric guitar.
2:12 – The chorus.
2:32 – High-pitched guitar solo.
3:05 – Still going.
3:15 – Drums kick in, yet the shredding shows no sign of relenting. I bet this will go straight into the chorus.
3:45 – Maybe someday…
3:52 – Aaaaand the chorus.
4:19 – Music fades.
4:24 – Strings, wind noises, piano.
4:36 – Vocals like in the beginning. So cyclical!
5:08 – Songs ends with a fuzzed out guitar strum and a plink on the piano.
Summary: Capable schmaltz.
Potential video scenario: Axl reflected in a cracked mirror, playing a piano with a dropcloth and candelabra on it.
Track 14: Prostitute
0:01 – Canned drums. Seriously. Steven Adler, with a boatload of Afghani smack coursing through his veins, would sound better than this.
0:04 – Guitars a la “Today” by Smashing Pumpkins.
0:05 – High, tender vocals. This sounds like the theme to a prime time drama about an upper middle class California family.
0:58 – Cha-chug! Electric guitars, strings, real live drums.
1:18 – Things toned down for the verse. This is sounding pretty nice now.
1:44 – Effective string stabs.
2:09 – The return of the rock. Hoowahhhhhh.
2:30 – Oh “you,” where would you go if I said I loved you and then turned you away?
2:49 – Things intensify for a bridge, with some busy guitars.
3:04 – Axl sustains a note, the guitars chug and the soloing starts. Ya know, as much as I complain about the shredding and canned drums, I should thank my lucky stars that they didn’t decide to throw some turntables onto this album somewhere.
3:11 – I ain’t the smartest man, but I think this is guitar shredding, as backed by…another guitar shredding. They must have been like, “We’re running out of time, but there’s so much noodling we still want to do. How can we remedy this situation in an affective, time-efficient manner?”
3:14 – That said, that was pretty epic. I especially miss it now that I am confronted with more canned drums.
3:16 – Shots of Los Angeles at sunset, with the low sun glinting off of the tinted windshields of the cars passing under impossibly tall palm trees lining the road.
3:44 – The crescendo part.
4:05 – You you you you youuuuuuuuuuu.
4:18 – Excellent falsetto.
4:20 – Layers of shredding.
4:38 – Canned drums.
4:50 – Drums begin fading into the piano that kicked in.
5:05 – Some strings. The patriarch of the L.A. family pulls his European sedan into the driveway of their stucco home. His son, who is wearing a white thermal shirt under a t-shirt with some useless crap haphazardly silkscreened on it, steps out into the front yard. Why do people in the suburbs wear long sleeves under short sleeves like that? I thought that was something that junkies did to hide trackmarks.
5:44 – Strings and piano. The album ends peacefully, like an old man dying in his sleep, or Slash blacking out on the chaise lounge by his pool.
Summary: Cinematic and comparatively tasteful, but lacking personality. A surprisingly smooth ending to this wild card of an album.
Potential video scenario: See 0:05, 3:16, and 5:05.
Bonus video – Steven Adler on “Hard Copy.”
If “Chinese Democracy” had come out in 1997, it would have sounded like a veteran rock band creating a good balance between keeping contemporary and indulging their pretensions. It would have had a couple of hit singles. Purists and most critics would write it off, but now, in 2009, would be dusting off their copies and reevaluating the album’s better parts; a couple of bilious rockers and tender ballads.
But, this album came out in 2008, and a lot of it is dated and overproduced. The extra decade also added a legend and a stigma to this album, casting it as the crashing end of rock star excess, as steered by a reprehensible, prima donna egomaniac. It would have to be flawless to be considered a complete success, and it is difficult to consider the music objectively, without thinking of it as the result of millions upon millions of dollars funneled into multiple recording sessions.
I was trying to do a count of the songs that I like on here, but this album can not be evaluated on a track by track basis. It’s more about the pieces of the tracks. That said, the majority of the parts in nine of the fourteen songs are good, so I consider them to be good songs. In other words, more than half of more than half of this album is good, and only a couple of the songs are unsalvageable skippers. The rest is tolerable, in a subjective, “look at the science project” way.
This album gets three out of five stars. It’s very unsatisfying to pass it off as mediocre, because it’s not – it’s alternately horrible and brilliant. But, when those two extremes are averaged, you come out in the middle.
CT Terry was born in 1979. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is getting an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College. For more of his writing, go to gulliblezine.blogspot.com.