Let’s get right to it: The first Guns n’ Roses album of new, original songs since the first Bush administration is a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record. In other words, it sounds a lot like the Guns n’ Roses you know. At times, it’s the clenched-fist five that made 1987’s perfect storm, Appetite for Destruction; more often, it’s the one sprawled across the maxed-out CDs of 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and II, but here compressed into a convulsive single disc of supershred guitars, orchestral fanfares, hip-hop electronics, metallic tabernacle choirs and Axl Rose’s still-virile, rusted-siren singing.
If Rose ever had a moment’s doubt or repentance over what Chinese Democracy has cost him in time (13 years), money (14 studios are listed in the credits) and body count — including the exit of every other founding member of the band — he left no room for it in these 14 songs. “I bet you think I’m doin’ this all for my health,” Rose cracks through the saturation-bombing guitars in “I.R.S.,” one of several glancing references on the album to what he knows a lot of people think of him: that Rose, now 46, has spent the last third of his life running off the rails, in half-light. But when he snaps, “All things are possible/I am unstoppable,” in the thumper “Scraped,” that’s not loony hubris — just a good old rock & roll “fuck you,” the kind that made him and the old band hot and famous in the first place.
Something else Rose broadcasts over and over on Chinese Democracy: Restraint is for suckers. There is plenty of familiar guitar firepower — the stabbing-dagger lick that opens the first track, “Chinese Democracy,” the sand-devil fuzz in “Riad N’ the Bedouins” and the looping squeals over the grand anguish of “Street of Dreams.” But what Slash and Izzy Stradlin used to do with two guitars now takes a wall of ’em. On some tracks, Rose has up to five guys — Robin Finck, Buckethead, Paul Tobias, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and RichardFortus — riffing and soloing in broad, saw-toothed blurs. And that’s no drag. I still think the wild, superstuffed “Oh My God” — the early Chinese Democracy track wasted on the 1999 End of Days soundtrack — beats everything on Guns n’ Roses’ 1993 covers album, The Spaghetti Incident?
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Most of these songs also go through multiple U-turns in personality, as if Rose kept trying new approaches to a hook or a bridge and then decided,”What the hell, they’re all cool.” “Better” starts with what sounds like hip-hop voicemail — severely pinched guitar, drum machine and a near-falsetto Rose (“No one ever told me when/I was alone/They just thought I’d know better”) — before blowing up into vintage Sunset Strip wallop. “If the World” has Buckethead plucking acoustic Spanish guitar over a blaxploitation-film groove, while Rose shows that he still holds a long-breath vowel — part torture victim, part screaming jet — like no other rock singer.
And there is so much going on in “There Was a Time” — strings and Mellotron, a full-strength choir and Rose’s overdubbed sour-growl harmonies, wah-wah guitar and a false ending (more choir) — that it’s easy to believe Rose spent most of the past decade on that arrangement alone. But it is never a mess, more like a loud mass of bad memories and hard lessons. In the first lines, Rose goes back to a beginning much like his own — “Broken glass and cigarettes/ Writin’ on the wall/It was a bargain for the summer/An’ I thought I had it all” — then piles on the wreckage along with the orchestra and guitars. By the end, it’s one big melt of missing and kiss-off (“If I could go back in time . . . But I don’t want to know it now”). If this is the Guns n’ Roses that Rose kept hearing in his head all this time, it is obvious why two guitars, bass and drums were never going to be enough.
It is plain, too, that he thinks this Guns n’ Roses is a band, as much as the one that recorded “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Used to Love Her” and “Civil War.” The voluminous credits that come with Chinese Democracy certainly give detailed credit where it is due. My favorite: “Initial arrangement suggestions: Youth on ‘Madagascar.” Rose takes the big one — “Lyrics N’ Melodies by Axl Rose” — but shares full-song bylineswith other players on all but one track. Bassist Tommy Stinson plays on nearly every song, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed, the only survivor from the Illusion lineup, does the Elton John-style piano honors on “Street of Dreams.”
But Rose still sings a lot about the power of sheer, solitary will even when he throws himself into a bigger fight, like “Chinese Democracy.” In “Madagascar,” which Rose has played live for several years now, he samples both Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and dialogue from Cool Hand Luke. And at the end of the album, on the bluntly titled “Prostitute,” Rose veers from an almost conversational tenor, over a ticking-bomb shuffle, to five-guitar barrage, orchestral lightning and righteous howl: “Ask yourself/Why I would choose/To prostitute myself/To live with fortune and shame.” To him, the long march to Chinese Democracy was not about paranoia and control. It was about saying “I won’t” when everyone else insisted, “You must.” You may debate whether any rock record is worth that extreme self-indulgence. Actually, the most rock & roll thing about Chinese Democracy is he doesn’t care if you do.