Saturday, 22 November 2008

'Chinese Democracy' - the rock equivalent of 'The Phantom Menace'?

Tomorrow, on November 23rd 2008, Guns 'n' Roses finally release "Chinese Democracy". If you've ever wondered what an album which took almost fifteen years and cost $11m to make would actually sound like, fill yer boots.

I can't stand Guns 'n' Roses, for reasons I can't be bothered to go into here - the "blogosphere" is already overrun with peanutheads who'll tell you at great length why Band X/Movie Y/Celebrity Z sucks, is an oxygen thief, or holds a metaphorical pillow over the face of "real" talent, so I'll pass on this opportunity, thanks. Nonetheless, it's undeniable that G'n'R are A Big Deal to many, including several people whose opinions I respect, and whatever else one may think of the band, their music and the Hammer-Of-The-Gods-turned-up-to-11 universe they inhabit, it's equally undeniable that "Chinese Democracy" is that rare thing nowadays - an Event Record.

I like Event Records, or more precisely, I like the idea of them. I mean, I can't remember the last time I was startled by an Oasis record, for example, but each time a new one comes around, I'm curious to hear whether Noel Gallagher's managed to pull anything out of his arse that's near the measure of "Slide Away" or "Rock'n'Roll Star". Likewise, with every new Madonna album comes a degree of certainty that it won't sound too much like the previous one. Which is to say that Event Records often hold a fascination for both fans and non-fans, even if only, in the latter case, to shore up an existing belief that the performers in question are no more than charlatans, fanfarons and snake-oil salesmen. Being somewhat long of tooth and grey of beard, I can remember when Event Records seemed a good deal more plentiful and frequent than they are now. The two-year gestation of Stevie Wonder's masterpiece "Songs In The Key Of Life" is a good example; how on God's Green Earth, people asked at the time, can an album take two years to make? When the end product finally arrived, though, and everyone got to hear it at the same time (more or less), the wait was, in the case of "Songs...", definitely worth it. Now, if you'll please briefly excuse me while I draw a discreet veil over "The Second Coming"...

Anyway, content notwithstanding, it could be that "Chinese Democracy" marks the passing of the Event Record, on some level at least. Reviewing it for The Onion's AV Club, Chuck Klosterman makes a very astute point to this effect;

"For one thing, Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that."

I think this is dead-on. Peer-to-peer trading of watermarked copy-protected advance promos, the drip-drip of officially-sanctioned leaks, being able to treat albums like the buffet at a wedding (courtesy of iTunes et al), where we pick and choose what we want with no obligation to take anything we don't - all have rendered the notion of the album as a self-contained 'Grand Artistic Statement Which Has Something Important To Say About The World And That' rather redundant. It appears that nobody's told Axl Rose any of this - or if they have, he wasn't listening - because "Chinese Democracy" has 'Grand Artistic Statement, etc.' embedded in its very DNA. But the inherent risk in giving the world advance notice, as Rose has done, that the next one will be The Magnum Opus is this; what if it turns out to be a load of shite? What if, after all this time, Axl Rose has completely lost sight of whatever it is he wanted to say, to the extent that the making of the statement has now become as, or more, important than the statement itself? After all, Rose's megalomaniac tendencies have been well-documented, and megalomania can do funny things to one's sense of perspective. Now, I should add at this point that I'm not much of a "Star Wars" fan, so I could never quite fathom the eagerness with which the arrival of "The Phantom Menace" was anticipated by those for whom "Star Wars" was a formative part of their childhood. But one comment made upon its release by a bitterly disappointed fanboy has stayed with me; "It's official - I have wasted my life". So, to return to the doubtless not-terribly-original observation at the top, has a decade-and-a-half of sitting on your hands been worth it? Or is "Chinese Democracy" rock music's equivalent of "The Phantom Menace"?

Well...yes. And no. If it was ever Axl Rose's intention to cause a paradigm shift in rock music with this record, then I'm afraid he's fallen flat on his arse. I've often been told by fans of G'n'R that it was the stripped-back directness of "Appetite For Destruction", and its preference for the fundamentals of rock'n'roll (or G'n'R's idea thereof) over stadium-rock hair-metal bombast, which caused it to have such a seismic impact (I'm still not buying that line, but that's another story). Well, guess what? In the bombast stakes, this makes the complete works of Richard Wagner, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Jim Steinman sound like a Nick Drake demo. Minimalist it most assuredly is not. And, like most modern rock records, it's been ProTooled to fuck and back - Rose's vocals are clinically on-the-money throughout, and every riff, bass line and drum fill has been arranged with draughtsman's precision; a sure-fire indicator that several hundred man-hours have been spent in post-production. There is nothing raw about "Chinese Democracy"; the dirty fingernails, cracked lips and calloused fingers of G'n'R's previous manifestations have been comprehensively excised. You could eat your dinner off this album. It's been polished, buffed and polished again, almost to the point of blandness. But here's a funny thing - when it works, it sounds fantastic. Case in point being "Street of Dreams", a spectacularly over-written mid-tempo rock ballad that's a dead cert to be bashed out at "American Idol" auditions from now until the franchise utters its death-rattle. "Madagascar", one of several songs with somewhat gnomic titles, is the sort of swaggering, roided-up, industrial trip-hop you could've heard on umpteen movie and videogame soundtracks over the last decade or so, but the twist here is that, instead of yet another guitar solo that sounds like a massacre in a poultry farm, there's a spoken-word collage featuring snippets from "Cool Hand Luke" and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. Yet when you hear it, rather than thinking, "Oh, for fuck's sake!", you instead begin to think that, despite the played-out nature of this and other devices, such as the dated nu-metal grind which drives a number of songs, "Chinese Democracy" is actually a very coherent-sounding record. The cliches make sense. There's plenty of light and shade, a first-rate grasp of modern hard-rock dynamics that might conceivably have Josh Homme rushing back to the drawing board, and any number of surprising and even affecting melodic and compositional flourishes. When you think about what a maddening clusterfuck its creation must have been, this is pretty remarkable. Imagine if the best thing that could have been said about it was, "Well, at least it's not completely fucking awful..."

And, you know, it isn't. In fact, it's pretty good. Whether or not Jimmy Iovine and the board of directors at Interscope feel they've got their money's worth now that Rose has finally delivered the bloody thing is moot. One thing's for certain; somebody did a bang-up job of keeping advance copies out of the reach of mp3 blogs, so there's a genuine likelihood it'll actually sell. If there's enough about it to have a committed naysayer like me conceding that, yes, this record is a qualified success which will perform well on its own merits rather than on the reputation of its creators, and no, it is nothing like the bloated, sprawling, unfocused, Ishtar-like monstrosity that many people might have expected, then it probably deserves to. I might even buy it myself. If it recoups, mind you, then I'll show my arse in the Vatican.

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