However tenuous Axl Rose’s grip on reality, even he must have realised that March 27th 2008, represented a milestone of sorts. Fourteen years after a long-dissolved line up of Guns N’Roses began work on a new album, Dr Pepper pledged to give every American a free can of pop if Guns N’Roses got around to finishing Chinese Democracy. Well, you have to hand it to the soft drinks manufacturer. Succeeding where even a $1,000,000 hurry-up fee from Geffen in 1999 failed, something in the interim appears to have focused the group’s sole original member.
Quite what took him so long is a mystery that won’t be solved simply by listening to Chinese Democracy. “Be kind, I’ve done all I should,” he beseeches on the final song Prostitute. If he sounds like a beleaguered soul in search of some peace, the preceding hour of high-octane riffage will ensure that you will at least know how he feels. But hey, at its best, Chinese Democracy sure has its moments. Few but the most devoted fans must have dared hope for the exhilarating abandon of Shackler’s Revenge or the airless subterranean portent of the title track.
Elsewhere, Chinese Democracy sounds oddly like Kurt Cobain projecting over a noise that recalls Queen at their most grandiloquent. It’s a tension most effectively realised on There Was A Time, which sees sprightly FM rock verses derailed by an abstruse anti-chorus. But even here, the smooth string arrangements are an add-on, the royal icing that encases a dense sonic Christmas cake of paranoia and recriminations, all steeped in Rose’s considerable neuroses.
Fifteen years after first mentioning the song in an interview, This I Love – Rose’s overwrought apology to a former lover also emerges. In its way, it’s remarkable, like Marillion’s Kayleigh reimagined by a hysterical Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Given another decade, Rose may have been able to come up with an ending, but here and also on the otherwise excellent Street of Dreams, the song cuts off at a seemingly random juncture.
Perhaps we should simply rejoice that $13 million of false starts, have been edited down, seemingly by co-producer Caram Costanzo, to something that mostly coheres as an album. We may never know if Chinese Democracy is the record Axl Rose set out to make in 1994 – before the first of eight guitarists passed through his revolving door – or just an attempt to draw a line under the whole saga. A million monkeys with their proverbial typewriters would have taken far longer to create something as good as this. The classic Guns N’Roses line-up which gave us Paradise City and Sweet Child O’Mine – would have taken a lot less to deliver something better. So if Chinese Democracy falls somewhere between, that should hardly come as a surprise to anyone.