In late 1987, toward the end of a decade dominated by a sabre-rattling and fear-mongering administration, glossy celebrity worship, bank scandals, and music so slick and lifeless it seemed little more than a corpse made up for its own funeral, I had a late-night revelation. I was a 16-year-old hard rock guitarist and occasional high-school student, watching "Headbanger's Ball" on MTV one weekend night, when I heard the banshee cry: You know where you are? You in the jungle, baby! You're gonna diiiiie! With Axl's scream and Slash's grinding riff I was welcomed to the jungle, where it seemed the culture had been for so long, but now the gleaming veneer was cracked and the ugly truth was punching free. Appetite for Destruction was just about a perfect album--dark ("Welcome to the Jungle", "Nightrain"); anthemic ("Paradise City"); even poppy ("Sweet Child o' Mine"); and all with the blood of 80s corruption (see "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone") running through its veins.
Now, another decade of said sabre-rattling, scandals, and gloss. And now--15 years in the making--another nearly perfect album from Guns n' Roses, Chinese Democracy. I have to admit resentment toward Axl's prima dona antics over the years, but his genius is undeniable and work like this is why we put up with him. From the opening strains of incidental noise, it is clear that this album is going to be an event. Songs like the title song, "If the World" (a perfect fit in the movie Body of Lies), and "Riad n' the Bedouins" mark an expanded scope for G n' R into a more "world" sound, employing Middle-Eastern textures and references appropriate to our times. Present in songs like "Shackler's Revenge" is the familiar mixture of Axl's overdubbed low-high vocals, which sound like his own internal split between meditative and manic! The traditional dark lyrical content is also present, as in "Shackler's" where Axl repeats, "I don't believe there's a reason/I don't believe it." There are many familiar G n' R elements keeping Chinese Democracy right in line with the "band's" catalog.
Absent, however, are Slash's riffs. Like the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction"), G n' R used to be a "riff band," with songs like "Jungle" and "Sweet Child" (and most others) defined by Slash's opening guitar riff. The new G n' R markedly departs from such raw and traditional blues-based rock sensibilities, in exchange for drum loops and slicker production. Nevertheless, the guitar work is stellar! Axl has surrounded himself with considerable talent and, though the guitar lacks Slash's personality, the technique is flawless and there are many moments that require words like "tasty" and "elegant" and even "magnificent." And for guitarists like myself it is great to herald that, at least on Chinese Democracy, the guitar solo is back!
The few lower points on the album have to do with over-producing ("Scraped") and sentimentality ("This I Love"), though even these are buoyed by lyrical and musical inventiveness. Also, I would be remiss not to single out "Street of Dreams," perhaps the most beautiful of all of Axl's writing. Yes, the song is radio-ready, but it deserves any play it will hopefully get. A more mature "November Rain," "Dreams" moves through beautiful chord changes and uplifting guitar play that truly elevates the soul. "Better" will be a good option for rock radio, and "Catcher in the Rye" even borders on prog-rock with its various movements. Axl's lyrical craftsmanship has sharpened as the well from which he draws seems to have deepened considerably. Cliches are few and lyrics are biting, personal, gritty, and even cathartic and spiritual--often in the same song (from "Prostitute"--What would you say if I told you that I'm to blame?/What would you do if I had to deny your name?). Basically, the album's high points are many and varied--take your pick! Like any G n' R record, there is something for just about everyone.
Indeed, the entire album seems to be a concept a decade-and-a-half in the making, but somehow landing right in stride with the rapid-fire 21st century. The despair and darkness that so plagued Axl and so defined the Guns n' Roses of 1987 still lurks throughout Chinese Democracy, but there is light. The unusual song "Madagascar" employs audio from Martin Luther King Jr., sounding notes of hope (Forgive them that tear down my soul/Bless them that they might grow old), again appropriate for our times. Rumors of this album's release have been spread for years, but with its broader lyrical and musical scope, and cries for justice and healing--both personal and global--the timing of this release seems like marketing genius. Just as our ears and souls are glazing over again, Axl arrives to wail us out of musical complacency. Welcome to...Chinese Democracy!