Democracy hasn't come to China, but two President Bushes, two terms for Clinton and the Obama election all came and went in the 17 years since Guns N' Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, its last collection of original material.
Singer and songwriter Axl Rose, the band's sole remaining original member, and a cast of characters so voluminous it takes five pages in the CD's liner notes to credit, spent 14 years recording Chinese Democracy in 14 studios from Los Angeles to London. The cost, millions.
Seldom has any album come out under this crushing weight of expectations. Though Rose, 46, goes above the call of duty, employing five guitarists to replace the departed Slash, Chinese Democracy isn't upper-case Great.
Too much of the 71-minute, 14-track album is overthought and, its worst offense, it's sonically thin and poorly mixed. Unlike recent top-shelf hard rock albums from Metallica, AC/DC and Nickelback, Chinese Democracy has no bottom end. We knew we'd miss Slash; who figured GNR's departed rhythm section would be missed even more?
But some of Chinese Democracy -- two gorgeous, Elton John-inspired tracks, Street of Dreams and This I Love, plus There Was a Time, another massive epic, which features six guitarists, a Mellotron, a choir, Rose's barbed-wire squeal and an orchestral arrangement it took five men to handle -- are, at the very least, lower-case great. This is music on par with the best from the sprawling Use Your Illusion.
Then there's Madagascar, another windswept tune in the November Rain vein. Madagascar employs sampled elements from two Martin Luther King Jr. speeches plus movie soundbites from Cool Hand Luke, Braveheart, Seven, Casualties of War and Mississippi Burning. All of this interweaves with more orchestra, French horns and guitars.
This is where some longtime fans might start to bail. Those hoping for the leaner, sleazier hard rock muscle of GNR's 1987 landmark Appetite for Destruction, get less attention from an indulgent Rose this time.
But Rose issues his critics a challenge up front: "[I]t would take a lot more hate than you/To end the fascination'' and then closes more than an hour later with the confessional Prostitute. "Seems like forever and a day/If my intentions are misunderstood/Please be kind/I've done all I should.''
For the most part, yes, he has. Given the ambition, the majesty of its best material,and the return of a singular hard rock voice, the flawed but compelling Chinese Democracy impresses.
Pod Picks: There Was a Time, Street of Dreams, Shackler's Revenge.
Photo: Business Wire