Guns N' Roses Week: Chinese Democracy
When Axl Rose reunited with Slash and Duff McKagan in 2016, few imagined the setlist would contain any songs from Chinese Democracy. Surprisingly, the setlists over the last few years have featured a heavy portion of songs including the nightly highlight of the blistering "Better" and the title cut. Chinese Democracy was in development for more than a decade with Axl Rose was the lone member of the classic line-up. Due to the anticipation and wait there was no way fans expectations could be met, which is most unfortunate, because it features some of the most soul-baring work of Axl Rose's career. If you are looking for mystical puzzle pieces that give you better insight into who he is, look no further than the fourteen intoxicating cuts mined for our consumption. Below is a deep dive review of this misinterpreted record that deserves another look.
Original 2011 Review:
Three years ago Chinese Democracy was unleashed upon the world and sadly the rock press had little to say about it. This amazed me because we live and die for artists willing to burn themselves at the stakes and yet no one bothered to really see what was being expressed inside of the record. A distressing reality is that as most acts are unwilling to let us behind their own private curtain in fear of alienating the audience or daring to be uncommercial. If Adele has taught us anything in the past year, it's all about being genuine and not hiding behind melodies, hooks and razzle-dazzle videos. The world seeks artists whom they can see eye-to-eye with. When Axl Rose and his new incarnation of Gun N' Roses unleashed Chinese Democracy in November of 2008, instead of having people dissect and relish it everyone appeared to throw up a collective sigh. Instead of focusing on the music most of the press focused on who wasn't playing guitar, how long it took and the behind the scenes drama in bringing the album to store shelves. In their ever reaching goals to stake claim to dwindling readership most forgot to hone in on what matters above all else; the music. As Rose and his new musicians trekked through the battlefields of heartache and despondency they came ready armed with a guitar army and a pained voice which evoked the siege of one's eternal chill. We chastise artists when domestic bliss interferes with record making and yet when Axl Rose releases a collection of songs where he explains the emotional holocaust of his life, few took note.
Chinese Democracy is a testament to one man's anguish and how he tries to wade his way through this existence. These fourteen songs are a series of brave and stark revelations that define his reality. Whether he's pulling this from within or not you can't say but I'll go on the line and say I personally believe these are first person narratives. His vocals are too heated and ardent for them not to be. I can't help but feel that in a different time and place where one was able to digest, experience these songs visually or even share a sort of recurring affair with them on the radio they would have found a way to seep themselves into people's minds and hearts and then eventually through intense sing-a-longs in concert. Plain and simple, the world judged a book by its cover and missed out on one of the most emotionally bare records of the last decade.
The album opens with a punctured riff and an anguished howl that commences a dark and tormenting journey. The title cut, "Chinese Democracy" was inspired by the Martin Scorsese film Kundun. Rose caught it on television and seeing this world religious lead be alienated and exiled from his home is something Rose can relate to. In previous interviews he has delved into the deep psychological drama that scarred him during his formative years in Indiana. He left for Los Angeles because he had nowhere else to roam. Since then, he's lived a nomadic life out of the public eye never revealing too much of himself, except in his music. The theme of being held back but always trying to break on through begins here as he tackles political social and severely delicate issues. "Shackler's Revenge" is an upsetting tale of dealing with demons of the past and trying to reconcile the loss of love ("I don't believe you"). The wailing chorus is severe and there is a clear-cut accusation here with no holding back. People use words to express their care but all too often it's spoken by people where honesty is not one of their virtues. "Street of Dreams" feels like a sequel of sorts to "November Rain" and "Estranged", albeit shorter. An overriding question is whether you find your way back as Rose looks inside the mirror attempting to make sense of what went wrong ("What I thought was beautiful/ Don't live inside you anymore") with someone he once felt was so pure and perfect. Originally titled "The Blues", its arrangement is a variation of the trails his idols Queen and Elton John previously traveled. To be this extreme and spew forth as much indignation Rose does, you have to apprehend that he feels this way because he experienced overpowering love. When Rose puts his heart into something it's all-in. His life appears to be a series of life altering experiences where he attempts to shield away the demons of the past. However, when the music ends he's not left with beauty but anguish which he can file away into a closet of pain. It's almost as if he's trying to will those who wronged him to see the error of their ways in the hopes the love they shared will return. You sense he knows this is hopeless, but once you've experienced a deep love, you always hold out hope it will return one day.
"If the World" is a revolution of the inner soul fighting with the world at large. Witnessing turmoil and agony the world over on his tours, Rose presents one of his most inspired tracks with a worldly acoustic guitar leading the way. "Scraped" is a scorching rocker of insolence ("Don't you try and stop us now") while "Sorry" houses moments of morose glum and a serene chorus where Rose almost monotonously sings holding his emotions at bay for the sake of the song. The lyrics are a conquest of his internal will. The dual acoustic opening guitars on "I.R.S." fill the harmony as it is sprinkled by an electric slap when plugged in. These tie back to the title track, "I feel like I'm living inside this song", a man without a place to call home on a journey without a roadmap. The narrator is looking for vengeance against the crime of his heart but no matter who answers his call, the victory will be hollow. "Madagascar" is sung with such self-discipline you begin to wonder if Rose went through some transformation throughout the course of writing and recording. Snuck in at the back of the album, it's a shrewd blend of sadness and dread. "This I Love" channels the spirit of Freddie Mercury in a solemn piano ballad. When a relationship ends, your mind and heart play tricks on you causing you to pray for an experience where these feelings can't be felt. You wish you never had known such highs so the come down wouldn't have been as inhuman. Rose's vocal inflections on the lyric "Make me feel so alive" standout as drums are absent fro the first half of the song and the tranquil arrangement is resolute to ensure we have heard his plea. Despite being separated from someone who was once such an integral part of your life, you can't help but drive by their house and revisit special places in search of the tiniest jolt of euphoria you once experienced. We may smirk and say we've never done this but we would be lying. We continually question why this person didn't say good bye when they left. One may feel that fourteen songs are too many to dedicate to the longing and loss of a relationship, but I'd say that anyone who says that has truly never loved.
"Catcher in the Rye" is a song that still puzzles me but the "Lana nana na na na" choruses are as conquering as anything Rose has laid down on tape. The love, the sting, the sorrow and the ephemeral joys of life burst to life through an unmitigated jam at the end. It's almost as if he has flashes of happiness in his dreams and can recapture these fleeting moments in the studio for us to savor. "There Was a Time" features a hypnotic multi-track chant at the end ("I would do anything for you"). It begins and ends with the choral sounds of voices like a cathedral that could be mistaken for a wedding or even a funeral. Rose and the band tear through their instruments channeling all of their sway through their hands in a way no lyric could ever do. Something virtually no reviewer ever hit upon was what a crack team of musicians Rose put together for this record. While many members came and went during the recording of the record, their emotional mark was left on the songs giving Chinese Democracy a cinematic feel.
"Better" is a belting battle cry where colossal highs are followed by demoralizing lows more aching than detoxing off hard drugs. After the damage has been done, we try to make sense of the calamity that has befallen us. In an almost comatose manner we obsess, wallow and fall into deep depression. However on "Better", arguably the greatest songs Rose has ever written, Guns N' Roses has never sounded more defiant. The operatic arrangement is wholly unleashed at 2:22 and it comes to a head with an orchestra or guitars dueling off in battle where bullets are replaced with venom ("I never wanted you to be someone afraid to know themselves"). "Better" is about experiencing a loss of faith only to come through on the other side. It's a coming to terms of one's personal conviction, understanding their heart and mind and casting a web around the one who unleashed such pain. The fury from within is on display through the band's volcanic performance and Rose's greatest vocal ever.
As Axl Rose clamors for understanding, he's complimented by unswerving performances that truly invite us into his world. I can't help but think if it was released by someone like Neil Young it would have been heralded as a heart crushing magnum opus and not for the faint of heart. Music is a profoundly personal experience and one of the joys in sharing it with people is to see their sundry reactions. Despite writing these words, I don't fully expect everyone to embrace Chinese Democracy. GN'R's legacy between their image and the sound of their records is tattooed into the soul of many and this alone does not allow them to listen without prejudice. There's nothing wrong with this as some of them simply can't look past it. This isn't something you can fully fault them for the same way a child may never warm to a step parent. But I wish they would take note of this record with an open mind and above all else an empathetic heart. Few artists are as willing to allow anyone, let alone the whole world, this deep into their psyche. Chinese Democracy is a startling confessional from a man long misunderstood. Despite having heard the album as a whole a few dozen times in the last few years, I am not sure if there is any silver lining in the record unless the actual writing and recording of these songs provided a therapeutic resolution. While I can understand while this record was not made for everyone, I can't forgive those who judge it based on what they feel like it should be. Axl Rose weaves tales of a cataclysmic series of events in his life of such astonishing enormity that I don't think he has ever recovered from them. It used to be we hailed these works of art as courageous but these days we're more concerned with headline grabbing quotes instead of what really matters; the music.
We walk a thin line in life putting up a front and rarely letting anyone in. People ask us how we are and we give them a stock answer very rarely ever showing who we truly are or what we genuinely feel. The opening of one's self is one of the boldest things anyone can choose to do with their life. Despite this, when artists expose themselves to the world, depending on our own frame of mind, we all too often stand there with blades in hand ready to shred someone to pieces because the artist doesn't fit into our vision. Does anyone really think the world was ready or wanted Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen when released in 1982? No, but over time they came to appreciate and love it as one of his most imperative records. Chinese Democracy is a record that defies the norm not for what it took to make it to store shelves but for what secrets are shared within the songs. The lyrics evoke crystalline scenes and set the stage for blood-spattered theater. All too often we lose ourselves in another person so much so that we never dare prepare for their adieu and when it ends, it feels like an apocalypse of the heart. Listening to Chinese Democracy reminds me that we're all misfits trying to make a home for ourselves. When the foundation of a relationship collapses like a building demolition, our life and our dreams collapse with it. By dismantling the paradigm of a conventional record, Axl Rose and Guns N' Roses dives deep into the quagmire of hell on and takes the listener along for the journey. Inside of are fourteen paintings full of venom, paranoia, longing, pleading and resolution. Many know of this record, but few have truly listened to it. This in itself is a shame, because Axl Rose has never sounded more alive and authentic than he does on Chinese Democracy
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Guns N' Roses Week: Chinese Democracy