Chinese Democracy, Guns N' Roses

The results of Axl Rose's labours betray his attempts to find a greater meaning in his work.
In a rare step back into the limelight during his 15-year old self-imposed exile, Axl Rose performs at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards in New York.
In a rare step back into the limelight during his 15-year old self-imposed exile, Axl Rose performs at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards in New York.

There is nothing unusual about a recording artist taking a hiatus to follow up a successful release. Jay-Z abdicated his reign after 2004's The Black Album for a two-year sabbatical before returning, to mixed reviews, with Kingdom Come. Jim Morrison published an interminable book of poetry before regrouping with The Doors for LA Woman, their final swansong. For much of the Eighties, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson simply elected to stay at home and go surfing through the spaces of his mind.

Axl Rose, the flame-haired and anger-prone vocalist with Guns N' Roses, one of the most successful heavy rock groups to emerge from the Eighties, has spent the last 15 years trying to figure out what kind of musician he wants to be. In his search, he has jettisoned every original member of the group which recorded 1987's Appetite for Destruction. Once a mainstay of tabloid newspapers and rock journals like Rolling Stone, Rose's musical odyssey, in search of his own relevance, has seen the artist turn reclusive. We like to watch musicians grow old before us - Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, for example. Last we looked, Rose was wearing a sneer, a Charles Manson T-shirt and a kilt. Then, inexplicably, he vanished.

Actually, Rose disappeared into one of 14 Los Angeles studios credited in the sleevenotes for Chinese Democracy. There began a period of self-reflection, as the singer mourned the end of his relationship with his girlfriend. Many of the songs on the new album deal with the aftermath of that break-up. In one of those recording studios, Rose also began to painstakingly plot a musical rebirth. For much of the late Nineties, as well as the earlier part of the 21st century, recordings for Chinese Democracy progressed slowly as a rotating cast of producers, musicians and engineers were hired to assist the singer. Many departed citing frustration with the singer's inability to complete the material. The roll call reads like a shortlist for entry into the Rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame: Moby, Roy Thomas Baker, Bob Ezrin, Youth, Brian May and Dave Navarro. In recent years, the line-up stabilised after Geffen cut off all funding for the recording sessions. All of this occurred against a backdrop of crisis in the music industry. Online piracy and consolidation across the musical landscape had resulted in mass layoffs in board rooms. By which point, in 2004, costs attributed to Chinese Democracy had escalated to $13 million (Dh47.8million).

The results of Rose's labours betray the vocalist's attempts to find a greater meaning in his work. While there is much to entertain, a number of the songs are overblown to the point of parody. Throughout the 14 tracks on Chinese Democracy, Rose stops to dissect every genre of music to trouble the charts since his self-imposed exile from the world. Each song ticks off a shopping list of influences culled from the last 15 years. The industrial grind of Shackler's Revenge photocopies the mid-Nineties paranoia of Nine Inch Nails; the title track proves that 46-year-old rock stars should avoid listening to emo records; and the sustained climax in Sorry suggests Rose owns a large collection of Euro-house albums.

Much of the music also bears the fingerprints of endless reheating by a number of cooks over a long period of time. There Was a Time, a seven-minute rock opera with two exciting and fluid guitar solos by the curiously named Buckethead (in another nod to the world of children's TV, the group's current line-up stars a guitarist called Bumblefoot), differs from earlier versions. The song now features a Mellotron, an orchestra, a wall of guitars and, fleetingly, a choir. This lack of authorship plagues a number of songs on the album. In literary terms, it's like reading a manuscript of Great Expectations penned by several writers.

Despite the tinkering, the scale of ambition, displayed in abundance, cannot be denied. Chinese Democracy might lack human intimacy - how could it not; Rose has spent the last 15 years in stasis - but the album dares to hint at lofty epics like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Rose has also jealously guarded his hell-hound snarl. IRS is a sprightly rock song with a menacing vocal which would not appear out of place on Appetite for Destruction. Both Street of Dreams and Catcher in the Rye could have graced either of the Use Your Illusion albums.

By the end of the album, though, Rose's struggle for musical greatness turns ponderous. And here lies the ultimate irony. The young man who went into a music studio in 1993, licking the wounds of love never recovered. And the artist who has now emerged with Chinese Democracy stopped relating to human life outside his life support system some years ago. Somewhere during his quest for musical resurrection, Rose forgot to notice that whatever he was fixing had never been broken in the first place.

Published: November 26, 2008 04:00 AM


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