Perhaps the most anticipated and near-mythological album of all time is now out, at least over at MySpace Music. (I'll try not to bag on that too much, but the experience is terrible there.) So with the reviews starting to come, I decided to give it a first listen and give my initial impressions. Chuck Klosterman's review hits the big question - "Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, "What was Axl doing here?" but "What did Axl think he was doing here?"" I'm not going to even try to answer or even contemplate that here. I just want to listen and react to what I think is presciently being called "The Last Album." Let's work through the narcissism, overdubs, and see if there's any 'there' inside this:
Chinese Democracy - the first "single" from the album is pretty classic neo-GNR. The lyrics are nonsensical and if China is a metaphor, is it one from the early 90s or now? In 1995, this one's damn good, but now, it's almost like a time capsule or an unreleased B-side. It's the problem with the whole album - do we judge it as an album that came out in late 2008 or one that sort of spans eras? It's an album encased in amber and I think where you put it depends on how you hear it. It's a Jurassic Park of an album if you can ignore the back story
Shackler's Revenge - This song debuted on Guitar Hero and seems almost built for it. Some odd breaks and a high difficulty Buckethead-style (I'm not sure if this *is* Cousin Bucket or if his work ended up on the finished product) solo. The overdubbed high-low vocals don't really add much and it's a decent enough, but not substantial song. If someone can tell me anything about Shackler or who the bleep he is, I'd appreciate it.
Better - This was leaked by Antiquiet earlier this year and for all the talk about those being demos, I can't see any big differences. Great riff, interesting bridge, and a very rockin' but very busy arrangement. The solo here is going to be one where people take sides on the loss of Slash. If you like the new stuff, you're in for some of the same arguments that came at Sammy Hagar. But wait, there's a second guitar solo that's much more Slash-ish, if a bit more fluid than his cutting blues riffs.
Street of Dreams - Another of the leaked songs, this comes with a bit of Elton John piano at the start and then changes into something else. There's obvious changes from the leaks. There's some Brian May-style riffs and ... horns? Axl's in "November Rain" mode, going from balladeer to screaming Katherine Hepburn rocker (yeah, really) in the same line. By the time the strings come in, it's obvious that he's thrown the kitchen sink at this song. If there's fifteen years of overdubs to be found, it seems they're here. Again, we have two disparate solos and a long falsetto leadout from Axl that takes the song that's already over the top deep into the uberindulgent.
If The World - Damn you, Klosterman. Comparing this song to a lost James Bond film tune is perfect. It really does sound like that and once you get it in your head, well, the song becomes almost parody. We've got some nylon guitar, some Middle Eastern sounds, and Axl nonsensically screaming. Fact is, the lyrics through the first songs make as much sense as mud. I guess I wasn't expecting deep insight from a GnR album.
There Was A Time - Another of the leaks, this one has a strong Queen feel to it, which to me isn't a bad thing. The strings are excessive, but do we have to look at "excessive" in a different way with this? Again, we're caught judging this album as much on backstory, but it can't be credibly separated from that backstory without changing the album. While excessive and indulgent have to be used here, the way it builds from the solo up to the multiple overdubs, strings and yet another second solo out, with Axl screaming over it actually seems reasonable. It's a huge cinematic song that reminds me that Axl might have had some idea here that he kept putting more and more into until he got close. Someone called it an "Appetite for Construction", a great play on words that effectively sums up the album so far. Brian Wilson says he knew exactly what Pet Sounds would be like before he ever started recording and just had to get everyone else to hear it. The problem here is that I think Axl knew too - the problem is that he heard the song in 1994 and was trying to reconstruct it from an increasingly vague memory. This one, he got close.
Catcher In The Rye - Only Axl would name a song this. If that's not Izzy Stradlin playing at the start, it's a very convincing imitation. His solo work is dreadfully unnoticed, by the way. The lyrics here are obviously about the album and Axl himself, but you can ignore the narcissism and focus on a great solo (seriously, someone get a guide to who did what on this, assuming someone knows!) Groupies everywhere are going to be quoting this song, saying Axl wrote it for them. The end is ... well, how many times can I say "excessive" or "over the top" without it losing the edge. It's a horror movie ending, where you think Jason is dead, but he comes back that one extra time to give you a shock. Axl always has to go one more time, it seems.
Scraped - The most straightforward song on the album has two vocal tracks that have slightly differing sounds from Axl. WIth this, you have to wonder - were they recorded years apart? At least he didn't autotune it, which is about the only tool he didn't seem to use. The solo here sounds like A Perfect Circle and I know there's some overlap between the bands, so ... who knows? It's a nice enough rock song that would have really rocked if this was a couple years after Use Your Illusion rather than a couple generations, musically. I almost want to call it filler, but not quite.
Riad N The Bedouins - Umm ok. Axl's going for another Middle Eastern feel and, honestly I can't tell why. He abandons it a couple times in the song. The "Immigrant Song" style scream that functions as a chorus doesn't really work for me and the strings under the solo are (you guessed it!) excessive for where the song is meandering along. There's a nice melody at places, but the song is so choppy, going in ten directions at once that the center never holds.
Sorry - Apparently Axl found his Pink Floyd albums over the past couple decades. It's a shock here in that it's relatively straightforward. There's some wavy psychedelic guitars and he does his best to channel Roger Waters in both spirit and vocals. This one is allegedly an early song written for someone from the original band, either Steven Adler or ... well, there's a list of possibilities. It's the most obvious of the hundreds of F**k You's in the album. Axl seems both obsessed with making an important album and in reminding people that they all tried to stop him to no avail. It gets really meta in places and none more here in a song that just doesn't fit with the album or the catalog.
I.R.S. - Yet another in the F**k You genre, the song loses itself in the slower middle. The falsetto misses where the growling "Gonna make this a federal case" chorus hits. "What you think, I'm doing this all for my health?" sums up everything else on the album and his soaring scream into a Bumblefoot solo (I think ... correct me here if I'm wrong) are vintage. The lyrics work here better than the song, a flip of most of the rest of the album.
Madagascar - When he started this album, I wonder if anyone could have imagined that Chris Rock would be doing a sequel to a kiddie animated film with the same name as the song. The open has horns ... real or synth? I'm not sure, but it's Beatlesy without being good. The vocals start out low and ... well weird. While the lyrics talk about being lost, Axl's voice is just a step lower than he's ever been and he does his snaky winds that seem as if he's trying to get back to where he normally sings. Again, without knowing which Axl sang this it's tougher to put it into context. By the bridge it's less weird and actually fits into the song. And then ... Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" and Strother Martin meet in the middle of some less clear quotes, a couple I think also from "Cool Hand Luke" just ... well, I have no idea what he's doing here. "Free At Last?" Kids in colleges across the country are going to debate the meaning of this song a lot while smoking pot and trying to get laid. And that might be the problem - no one had to think about "Appetite For Destruction" and even "Use Your Illusion"
This I Love - Tom Keifer, is that you? No, no, it's just Axl, a piano, and strings. Oh and a million overdubs. It's a Cinderella song, not a GnR song. I guess if the kid with the soul patch worked his magic on the last song, the girl he was explaining the lyrics to might give it up during the solo here. Otherwise, it's forgettable. I mean, who besides Axl remembers Stephanie Seymour anymore?
Prostitute - Following a straightforward love song with a title like "Prostitute" is natural here, right? But even Axl has to get the irony of starting a song with "It seems like forever and a day." It's a nice culmination, clearly about the album again and powerfully narcissistic while he tests the boundaries of ProTools more than he tests the boundaries of rock like he did *cough* twenty years ago.
You know, that kid with the soul patch in college now wasn't even alive when Appetite came out and as the guitars, drums, strings, ten vocal tracks, and six tracks of pure angst ring out as the album finishes, he's just as likely to say the old GnR was better. He's right, but while Chinese Democracy isn't a great album, it is a very good one. It opens with a laughing siren and voices that make you wait nearly a minute and then a killer riff through a crunchy Marshall stack. It closes with a lingering string quartet that just fades on a chord. There's a lot that happens inbetween, but that difference is about as effective a summary of this album as exists.