How long have we been waiting for Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy? After a decade passed without sight or sound of the thing, music fans started cracking the obvious joke: the Chinese will have democracy before record stores get Chinese Democracy. That joke is itself now an antique record stores! but we finally have an answer. On Nov. 23, Guns N' Roses will release its fifth album of original material, 17 years after its last. Put another way, Miley Cyrus will soon get to hear the first new Guns N' Roses record of her lifetime. (Listen to Chinese Democracy)
So what's the band been doing? Breaking up mostly. The current lineup has just one original member, Axl Rose. The rest, including guitar savant Slash, departed years ago, presumably too intrigued by the Internet and other human advances to stay locked up in a recording studio with their famously controlling singer. Rose, once as blond and lithe as a stalk of wheat, has suffered the pudgification of middle age and burned through a reported $14 million in production costs, making Chinese Democracy the most expensive record in history. But given the cruelty with which pop culture devours its celebrity eccentrics, he's had a pretty easy ride. A surprising number of people actually want to hear this record, and for that, you can credit curiosity What does $14 million sound like? and the power of rock stardom. In his prime, Rose may have been an angry, misogynistic homophobe the proto-Eminem but he was also a riveting physical and vocal presence. And real rock stars remain scarce enough that they tend to get the benefit of even extreme doubt. (See the 100 best albums of all time.)
What's clear within the first moments of Chinese Democracy is that Rose still has his snarl. His voice always was a power tool with endless precision settings, and on "Better" he opens by speak-singing in a tender falsetto before the guitars kick in and he sandblasts away at the melody. What Rose has to say "A twist of fate, the change of heart kills my infatuation" etc. is a bland list of romantic gripes that fail to diminish the song's impact one bit because it's how Rose sings that matters. Repeating the word better in the bridge, he spits the b's and drags his vocal cords across the r's until, out of meaninglessness, his meaning is unmistakable. Whether the anger is authentic is impossible to know, but it certainly is compelling.
Throughout, Rose sounds as strong as ever and maybe even more flexible. On the "November Rain"-ish ballad "Street of Dreams," he emotes with a previously unheard Elton John like pop softness, and "There Was a Time" has him scampering flawlessly up the vocal ladder from low growls to meticulous high notes. Most of the tracks clock in at about five minutes, with solid melodies and abundant pace and instrument changes. Choirs show up sometimes, as do a mellotron and a Spanish guitar. It's almost enough to keep things interesting. Almost.
Noting that Chinese Democracy is a tad overproduced is like pointing out that The Dark Knight is a little gloomy. It doesn't require a lot of critical expertise. But nearly every arrangement has been manipulated and fussed with until the music feels encased in Lucite. Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses' 1987 debut, had a brutish confidence it sounded like five sharpened instruments and lots of open space. That Guns N' Roses was a band; this incarnation is a whole zip code. On some tracks, Rose has five guitarists soloing and jamming to fill every cranny, but the result isn't chaos so much as needlepoint. "Madagascar" has a string section, horns, samples of the "I have a dream" speech and dialogue from Cool Hand Luke, but everything is so dully controlled that it might as well have been programmed on a synthesizer.
That means the burden of surprise rests solely on Rose's voice. Perhaps that's how he wanted it, but even his quaver isn't good enough to carry a 71-min. album that was 17 years in the making. "If I thought that I was crazy/ Well I guess I'd have more fun," Rose sings in "The Catcher in the Rye," and he may be on to something. Chinese Democracy is as obsessive as you'd expect, but it's not nearly crazy enough.