If you have ever been to Ludwig The Mad’s opulent Linderhof or romantic Neuschwanstein, you may find yourself feeling like an intruder. The nineteenth-century King of Bavaria would retire to these estates specifically to be a recluse. He would go so far as to have the servants transfer his food and laundry by dolly between floors so that he could go whole weeks without interacting with another human. Yet now, they are very popular destinations in the Bavarian countryside hosting thousands of tourists every year, which all seems to fly in the face of their original intention of being solitary hideaways. When I re-listened to Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, those similar feelings of intruding on someone’s safe place returned.
Chinese Democracy was created for an audience of one with that audience being its creator, Axl Rose. It is a 71-minute, 14 track album dedicated to the relentless pursuit of perfection of pomp rock. Its goal is not originality, but optimization of the genre. King Ludwig II greatly admired the absolutist kings of a century and half before him specifically the greatest of them all, King Louis XIV. Linderhof is Ludwig II’s attempt to replicate the incomparable Chateau of Versailles. Just as Ludwig II worshipped at the altar of Louis XIV, Axl Rose’s greatest influences were the Sun Kings of 1970s rock, including but not limited to Queen, Led Zeppelin and Elton John. Axl was not seeking to rewrite the rules of rock, but rather refine and revise the majesty of rock.
Chinese Democracy is the very definition of self-indulgent, but it is not self-centered. The big secret of Chinese Democracy is that is a guitar album. The blistering guitar solos are only one part of the delicious guitar orgy on this album. Each song contains an innumerable amount of guitar tracks that build a furious wall of sound that completely engulf the listener. “There Was A Time”, a perfected version of the epic ballads on Use Your Illusion, is breath-taking and expansive as it swirls to a stunning crescendo of explosive guitar tracks, orchestra and Axl’s signature screech. This is just one of many examples where Axl Rose was not shy of sharing center stage with the lead guitar. Often in rock music, there is a give and take. The singer and guitarist take turns within a song. On Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose arranges track after track, such as “Catcher In The Rye” his ode to gargantuan mid-1970s glam rock, where he sings through shredding leads and it gives the album the desired immense scale through the tension between singer and guitarist.
Chinese Democracy is a minimalist’s nightmare. On the scorching title track, the best hard rocking number, Axl double tracks his vocals in the most Axl way possible. He has himself sing the verses in both his low and high register at the same time. It does beg the question, “Could he not decide and then realize he did not have to OR was he like too much Axl is never a bad thing?”. The title track is just a great example of sheer production scale the listener can anticipate throughout the rest of the album. From 1:33-1:35, Axl tells Bumblefoot, give me a guitar lead lick for three seconds. You are like where did that come from? By the second verse, I counted three different guitar tracks, but might have missed a couple. There is a guitar lead that begins in the second chorus that effortlessly bridges into the main solo. Through all the chaos is a song that just roars as well as it swings. There in lies the how this enormous album is not crushed by its own weight.
Axl never forgets to write a hook during each song. In “Catcher In The Rye”, it is the Elton John-esque “La la la” refrain over a piano with the Brian May-esque guitar work. In “Shackler’s Revenge” an industrial-flavored cacophony, it is the excellent bridge to the chorus that catches your ear. In “Sorry”, Axl’s thunderous re-imagination of Led Zeppelin, it is the powerful chorus where his vocal mastery is on full display behind an impressive wall of sound. My favorite Axl lyric comes on one of the rare hard rocking numbers “Riad ‘N The Bedouins”,
“Riad and the Bedouins had a plan and thought they would win, but I don’t give a fuck about them. I. AM. CRAZY.”
For the most part, the swing and groove of classic Guns ‘N’ Roses is abandoned in favor of bombastic, lush compositions that focus on vocal hooks, shredding, screeching and raging climaxes. Where the album does fail is in its lack of diversity.
Axl does have a diverse taste in rock music. I attended one of the Chinese Democracy support tours in late 2011 or early 2012 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. I remember was incredibly sick and came armed with a bag of cough drops and tissues. I was so pissed when Axl did his “show up late” gimmick when I had a 9am presentation the next day for a graduate school class. My memory is that it was a crazy mash up of diverse genres. There were classic GNR sleaze rockers, epic piano ballads, 2-minute punk songs, and Elton John and AC/DC covers. The audience was on the hook for it all. Chinese Democracy absconds from his love of punk and sleaze instead favoring being great. The album is exhausting for the listener because about half of the album is devoted to creating the perfect rock magnus opus.
It is very clear in Axl’s mind that there is really only one way to achieve this goal. Such that even though, “Catcher In The Rye” and “Sorry” sound like very different songs they are trying to achieve the same goal and that is greatness. Music can inspire a lot of reactions from a listener, dancing, singing, emotion, headbanging, and thought. There is a specific type of rock music that exists just to be “great”. Besides the occasional hard rocker, Chinese Democracy is mostly devoted to this abstract concept of “greatness”. Axl interprets greatness to be a complex arrangement of his voice and guitar that begin separate but then amalgamate over the course of the song into a raging climax of sound that overwhelms the listener into awe. So, while “Catcher In The Rye” and “Sorry” are very distinct songs they both crescendo in a similar manner with the intention of creating the greatest rock song.
The relatively underproduced “This I Love” was the track that stood out to me in 2008 when I first listened to this album and it remains the track that I believe is the crown jewel of the collection. The soulful, tender Axl vocal performance over the piano then eventually a string orchestra expressing his anguish over lost love is sublime. The way the lead guitar is introduced is exquisite. The first note of the guitar solo is so pure. The solo ultimately winds its way into the most impressive solo of not just album, but one of the most impressive solos in rock history. Then the return to Axl over the piano to end the song is just perfect.
Chinese Democracy is both exhausting and tireless simultaneously because of the heavy production and song arrangement. The combined force of production and arrangement pummels the listener into submission over the course of an hour. However, the guitar sounds throughout the album are sublime and so many are concealed that it takes repeated listened to truly appreciate all the tracks within a song. Axl’s voice remains one of the most expressive and addictive in rock music. Chinese Democracy stands as a triumphant anachronism of pomp rock. So, if Linderhof is Ludwig II’s recreation of Versailles, Chinese Democracy is the reimagining of Night at the Opera and Physical Graffiti. Just as Linderhof deserves a visit for its extravagance, so too does Chinese Democracy for all its pomp & circumstance.
Yes, that was an intentional Spinal Tap reference. Surprisingly for all its pursuit of grandeur, I never found Chinese Democracy to succumb to the pitfalls of self-parody.
Brian May originally recorded a guitar track for this specific song. It is not surprising as the song feels like the baby of Elton John and Queen.
Lyrically, this album is the ravings of a lunatic. It does not detract from the fact that Axl sounds amazing as ever on this album.