Déjà vu. As I trek to Best Buy this Sunday morning to pick up Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, I can’t shake the feeling I’ve been down this path before. I imagine that music reviewers the world over are scratching their heads now that the album is finally released. How do you go about reviewing possibly the most-leaked album of all time? Not only do you have an intimate familiarity with most of the songs, but so does most of your readership.
Here’s a brief rundown of my own experience with the songs from Chinese Democracy–I bought a bootleg CD of demos of the album two years ago in New York City in a retail store. The songs are mixed differently than the final product, of course, but they are the same songs. Around the same time I ordered DVD bootlegs of concerts that featured some of the new songs, some as old as Rock in Rio 3 from 2001. Guns N’ Roses played at least 3 or 4 of the new songs live when I saw them in December of 2006. Live versions of the new songs have also been available to listen to on YouTube. Nine mastered demos were leaked on the Internet in June of this year. Finally, just days before release, the band’s MySpace allowed you to stream the album in full.
If you have even a passing interest in the band, changes are you’ve already heard most of this album. So instead of boring you with a play-by-play of the album, I will discuss why you should purchase the album. Buy the album because you appreciate the process of creating music. Chinese Democracy is 14 years in the making and features the work of numerous producers and a revolving door of talented musicians. Axl Rose has created a solid, consistent album that will only help solidify his place in rock and roll history. The album is not the masterpiece you’ve been waiting for, but be honest– after 14 years, the album could be flawless and you would still find faults.
“Chinese Democracy” may be comparable in some ways to the Beach Boys’ unreleased Smile album, which was intended to be the Beach Boys’ crowning achievement and which Brian Wilson described as “a teenage symphony to God.” During recording Wilson had a nervous breakdown and was unable to finish the album as originally conceived. In its place, the band released Smiley Smile, a work that fell short of public expectations but nonetheless hinted at brilliance. Brian Wilson finally finished and released Smile in 2004 as a solo project with the help of his touring band, the Wondermints. The Smile of 2004 is a stunning piece of work and was worth the wait.
With similar (unrealistic?) expectations Chinese Democracy is likely to suffer the same fate as Smiley Smile; both albums fall short in the public’s mind. With years and years of demo material to sift through, fans will always be left wondering if the album matches Axl’s original vision… and what is Axl’s vision, anyway? Would “Song X” have been better if the band had used guitar parts by Buckethead, as opposed to Bumblefoot? Were certain musical ideas lost in the production and mixing process? How would “Song X” have been different if Slash and Co. were still in the band? These questions are all interesting, but the album is finished and done.
Remember, though, that Brian Wilson would never have been able to complete “Smile” according to his original vision if the Beach Boys did not enjoy decades of continued commercial success. In pre-Internet times there was an intrinsic value placed on listening to and appreciating music as an art form. There is a sense now that purchasing music is an outdated concept. Why bother purchasing an album if you can hear it streamed on MySpace, here individual songs on YouTube, or even illegally download the entire album for free?
The obvious answer is that musicians need money to make a living. If you have enjoyed or listened to any of the new Guns N’ Roses album, you owe it to yourself and the band to go out and buy a real copy. I know times are tough. But a strange thing occurs when you put that CD in your player and let yourself go. You are not listening to your tinny computer speakers, or a low-quality mp3. You have the full album artwork and the complete lyrics, and you can learn something about the recording process and which musicians played on which song. For example, Sebastian Bach (ex-Skid Row) contributed vocals to “Sorry” and Axl played guitar on “There Was A Time.” A total of 14 studios are listed in the credits to the album. You would never know this and other information if you just listen to a pirated version.
Buy Chinese Democracy because you are curious about how the final product sounds and because you and your friends have good-naturedly joked about its release for years. Buy it because Axl Rose is in some ways the Brian Wilson of our times, a brilliant songwriter and a reclusive perfectionist. Buy it simply because the album is banned in China and that you are happy to have the freedom to choose your own music. Hell, you can even buy it on vinyl and remember the sonic advantages of that outdated format.
According to former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, Axl has at least 2 more completed albums in the wings. It would be a shame to stifle one of the few geniuses in modern rock, all because we no longer believe in paying for music. And who knows? If Chinese Democracy doesn’t live up to your expectations, maybe someday Axl will reimagine the album, as Brian Wilson reimagined Smile. Stranger things have happened.