Appetite for Destruction was a cattle prod, jabbing listeners in a delightfully sleazy way and representing a meaningful departure from the glint of hair metal. It kicked Bon Jovi in the guts and left it spitting up its own Aqua Net. For the next four years, Guns ‘N Roses was the biggest band in the world, a fact which thereafter seemed to haunt Axl Rose’s every professional accomplishment. For the record, the list of Axl’s professional accomplishments since completing the mountainous Use Your Illusion 1 & II in 1991 includes a dreadful album of punk covers called The Spaghetti Incident?, the installation of cornrows and the acquisition of renter’s insurance.
With every other spare minute, he told everybody he knew about an album he was supposedly making called Chinese Democracy. Sessions are alleged to have begun in 1995 for a record that was released this past month to a collective sigh of who gives a shit. Granted, the record industry is extremely excited to put a stamp on something with name recognition. Can’t beat 14 years of promotion. But what could such a record be other than a grand disappointment?
Well, to the point, it’s not even disappointing. I’d like to say that Axl’s legendary ambition—often the assumed culprit for the extraordinary incubation period on this work—crushed its spirit under the sheer girth of aging. But to the contrary, the album is thin, sterile and absent the distinction of hard labor. Actually, it’s the musical equivalent of a subdoral hematoma, vibrating like a bruise on the brain stem.
The assembled G’NR players muddle through another heap of post-grunge plop that to its discredit sounds every bit like that which is today sold under the rock idiom.
Listen real close to “Street of Dreams,” for instance, which lifts its opening piano schmaltz from Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For the record, I hate that Elton john song like I hate some of Hitler’s lesser henchmen. The part where he says ‘sugarbear’? That part would be like the guy that carried out Hitler’s dry cleaning orders.
Now we get to the point. It’s amazing how, when you really listen to it, Guns N’ Roses can sound so much like a Shania Twain record. This is where authenticity enters into the picture. Why does this sound like Shania Twain and kind of a lot like Celine Dion or, I’m not just saying this to be a dick, Michael Bolton. Things like genres, claims of authenticity and other forms of musical snobbery may seem to elevate the critic, or the self-proclaimed individual of refined taste.
However, the great democratizing effect that allows just about anybody to access and utilize the same software that underscores modern music industry production standards means that a lot of people can make an album that sounds like Chinese Democracy. And quite frankly, most of us can’t afford to take the better part of two decades working on it. It’s a cut and paste project from 14 years of vain and internalized irrelevance. If you use the easy solutions available today in the recording industry and there aren’t a lot of cogent musical ideas, the evidence will be apparent in the way that your music sounds strangely similar to a commercial jingle for how Wal-Mart is hip and has lower prices every day.
An absence of an honest discourse to this end results in a blurring of lines which allows us to record a whole lot of albums that sound virtually the same and yet which can all be targeted to their specific demographics. Throw a douchebag in chaps and dungarees on the cover and its country music. Make it an underage prostitute wearing a washcloth on the cover and its kiddie-pop. Put Axl on it and word has it that it’s rock music. But image constitutes the whole of the differential. Otherwise, the canned guitar noodling, the rigid insertion of digital string section blobs and the deeply mechanized layering of vocals is a fairly generic review that you could give to any number of albums made today where, at the heart of it, the song writing is not sufficient to overcome a negative production culture.
Did you expect “November Rain”?
I’m not here to argue that Chinese Democracy doesn’t suck. But to say it sucks because it is in some way inauthentic is misguided at best.
No, nothing on the album sounds quite like the Guns N’ Roses of Appetite for Destruction, for various reasons – most notably the absence of original band members. But look closer at what made their music great in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With a distinct sound, rock energy and a complete lack of subtlety, GNR helped pull the collective musical consciousness away from teased hair and spandex.
Though their style was an amalgam of some 30 bands that had gone before, they were pushing the envelope. GNR, in its original incarnation, served as a transition between hair metal and grunge rock, a rogue unit shredding gloriously from a cliff, maintaining arena-rock fury while forging an aesthetic that was fresh for its time.
So why would you want Guns N’ Roses, even if it’s not really the band, even if it’s just Axl Rose calling the shots, to return 15 years after releasing “The Spaghetti Incident?” with an album chock full of music that sounds 20 years old? What made the band great in the first place, besides the pure energy it brought to everything it endeavored, was its timeliness. In 1991, GNR sounded like 1991. Should they still sound like 1991 in 2008?
Of course not. Music, like everything else, evolves with time. Choosing to halt that progression and return to an aesthetic that has long since come and gone would be an anachronistic mishap on par with Colonial Williamsburg. A band can never adequately mimic its past sound — especially when its really no longer the same band — so why try? What’s the point of musical time travel?
You point to digital recording technologies and argue that Chinese Democracy sounds overproduced, or too “clean” to be Guns N’ Roses. But don’t forget that the band’s progress has been interrupted by the 15-year gap between albums. What if Axl and his crew were churning out records every three years since 1993? Would the marked difference in sound between Chinese Democracy and the classic material be mitigated if the change were gradual?
Besides, arguing that GNR would have needed to record on tape to maintain their rock and roll legacy misses the point entirely. Rock and roll is not about rules and limitations. Don’t tell Guns N’ Roses what to do.
And if Axl had decided to go for the sound that made him famous, Chinese Democracy could have been much, much worse. There’s nothing more pathetic than an artist attempting to recapture past successes. It’s a prime element of the concept known as “Jumping the Shark,” a term which has been contained to the realm of television for too long.
Shark-jumping often becomes apparent when an artistic entity tries too hard to evoke whatever it was that made him, her or them famous in the first place and so borders on self-parody. If Axl had tried to make Use Your Illusion III, he would have made himself more of a punchline than he already is. Chinese Democracy strikes me as a misguided attempt to stay relevant, which, though perhaps unsuccessful, is at the very least noble.
Again, I’m not saying it’s good. Quite the contrary, I don’t really enjoy it at all. I purchased the album for the purpose of this assignment, struggled to get through it just to write about it, and don’t imagine I’ll return to it anytime soon. It doesn’t sound like the good Guns N’ Roses material from the past, nor does it sound like some new, contemporary version of Guns N’ Roses. It lacks Slash, for one thing. And yes, as you point out, it’s a bit sanitized, a tad too much like Nickelback for anyone’s good.
But I just don’t think it would have been any better if Axl attempted to make it sound like the Guns N’ Roses of 20 years ago. Sadly, I think the crux of the problem was an old man trafficking in a young man’s world. Maybe Axl would have been best-served not releasing Chinese Democracy at all, leaving us to wonder what we were missing instead of trying to figure out what’s missing from the music.