We can all agree that Nov. 23's eons-delayed release of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy marks the death of something — some combination of the music industry, old-guard rock stardom, irony, sincerity, free-market capitalism, hip-hop, the spread offense, and neo-conservatism. Regardless, I feel comfortable stating that it's the last record I will ever buy just to read the liner notes. Holy shit. Do pop into Best Buy and have a gander.
Fourteen studios in four cities. Twenty-two assistant engineers. Eight folks under the heading "Additional Pro Tools." Six more under "Logic." The recurring phrase "initial production." Eleven musicians get their own personal thank-you lists; deranged mastermind Axl Rose's requires nearly three columns of tiny-ass type. (Notable names: Mickey Rourke, Donatella Versace, Izzy Stradlin.) And these are just full-album credits; all 14 songs get their own personal bibliography. "There Was a Time" has six guitarists (five is more common) and five orchestral arrangers; "Madagascar" boasts not just French horns but synth French horns, plus clips from two Martin Luther King speeches and dialogue from Mississippi Burning, Cool Hand Luke, Braveheart, Casualties of War, and Seven.
I look forward to rereading these liners in Best Music Writing 2009; you will greatly prefer them, at least initially, to Chinese Democracy itself. For what has really died here is the word overproduced. It will no longer suffice. So suffocating, so paranoid-android synthetic, so ludicrously engorged is Axl's magnum opus that you will have no problem believing it took dozens of people millions of dollars and nearly two decades to complete. This is the mythical burrito microwaved by God that's so hot, God himself cannot eat it. Upon first, second, third, and quite possibly tenth listen, it's a deeply unpleasant experience. You'll warm up to it. Maybe.
Cling to Axl's voice. He's still got it, that deranged shriek-to-moan bazooka of lust, contempt, pathos, and megalomania that made us love him in the first place. And though he frequently sounds like a cruise-ship parody of himself, this record gets better the more ridiculous it becomes. Daffy guitar solos by gentlemen named Buckethead and Bumblefoot enliven fairly turgid compu-thrash riff-rockers; eye-rolling piss-and-moan heartbreak dirges ("You're the only one I have ever loved that has ever loved me," etc.) are mercifully eclipsed by anthems of defiance.
That you can now purchase this album — that heartless major corporations patiently waited 1.5 decades for its fruition — makes a better case for the American Dream than the election of Barack Obama. The subtext imbues otherwise pedestrian tunes with a gleeful self-help delight: "Scraped" bashes around gracelessly but means what it fuckin' says when it says, "Nothing's impossible/I am inconquerable." That wasn't a word; it is now.
Again: Three full listens and/or four full hours, minimum, before you reach this state of admiration. Inevitably, Chinese Democracy sounds like too many cooks following way too many recipes. "Shackler's Revenge" is a charmless butt-rock dud infinitely more tolerable as a Guitar Hero download. And "Sorry" is a plodding, sub-Daughtry knuckle-dragger wherein Axl accosts one of his myriad enemies with deeply lame gibes like "You talk too much/You say I do/Difference is, nobody cares about you." You can fall in love with the idea of this album, but nothing packs a tenth of the vitality and exhilaration of, oh, let's say, "It's So Easy."
God, "It's So Easy." You put on Appetite for Destruction (in, like, 1987), cranked up "Welcome to the Jungle," and believed that no finer specimen of vicious, exhilarating rock 'n' roll hedonism could ever exist, and then came track two: "It's So Easy." It's an objectively perfect song, and though objectively perfect songs aren't effortless, per se, they sound that way — the effort, the craft, the forethought, the money, the time, and the personnel they require is the least interesting and prominent thing about them. Chinese Democracy is the inverse: a would-be Hollywood blockbuster upstaged by its own credits.