Chinese Democracy & The Quest For A Great Album

I never thought I’d be able to say this, but Chinese Democracy is out!

The mythical Guns N’ Roses album that has been discussed since I was in second grade is available, streaming on MySpace and playing on iPods around the world. I don’t have a whole lot to add to the common sentiments about this album (I might kill the next person who says “China will probably be a democracy before this album comes out”) but I do want to remark on its greater significance. I believe this is a truly important piece of art.

Here’s why:

1) It’s fascinating how a man can go into hiding for a decade, release no new music, and still command all this attention. People were dying for this album. Dr. Pepper is giving everyone in America free soda to celebrate it. It’s been played almost 2 million times in less than 2 days of streaming.

UPDATE: Chinese Democracy has now been played over 3 million times on MySpace, or roughly 25 times per second breaking all MySpace records for album streaming.

It’s headline news in newspapers everywhere. Amazing. And the story behind it is the stuff of legends. If you haven’t seen the New York Times article “The Most Expensive Album Never Made“, check it out.

2) It’s great music. If you judge it on its merits (ignoring the delays and breakup of old GNR) it really is a work of art. The industrial, NIN-esque”Shackler’s Revenge” is the most fun song I’ve ever played on Guitar Hero. “Catcher in The Rye” is an instant classic, “If The World” should’ve been in the latest James Bond movie instead of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Body of Lies”, and the album’s closer, “Prostitute”, is right up there with anything the old GNR did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s in the same league as “November Rain” and “Estranged.” Soaring vocals riding a crest of crashing synth, piano, drums. Totally epic and beautiful.

Some of the songs actually seem to be about the album. It’s tough to interpret these lyrics from the song “IRS” any other way:

“I bet you think I’m doing this all for my health
I should’ve looked again then at somebody else
Feelin’ like I’ve done way more than wrong
Feelin’ like I’m livin’ inside of this song..”

3) There are a couple of duds. “Sorry” lives up to its name, and “Madagascar”, while ambitious, falls a little short in my book. It happens.

4) There’s a lot of piano and synth. Someone called it “orchestral rock” which seems about right to me. Personally, as a pianist, I love it. I think it’s used just enough, in all the right places, at just the right volume. Diehard fans of the old GNR will probably hate it but whatever. I like how Axl is taking his music in a new direction. It’s a refreshing change from most 80’s rockers who are still, in middle age, running around in leather pants singing about screwing some girl.

But what I really love about Chinese Democracy is what it represents: the great album. Or, as one MTV article put it:

“And when it has finally moved from the storeroom to the shelves, will there be mass chaos? When GN’R fans — half-crazed with anticipation, half-dazed from spending the past 48 hours sleeping in line outside an electronics retailer — actually catch a glimpse of the album, will they summarily combust? And are we prepared, in these darkest of times (I’m speaking in terms of the music industry, not Wall Street), for an album that’s unlike any this decade? It could be an honest-to-goodness event, a surefire blockbuster that will cause music fans to behave like music fans, cueing up for midnight sales, throwing the album on in their cars, celebrating the release of a dozen or so pieces of recorded music. We will be transformed into savage rock-and-roll animals.

This was once a staple of rock music which all bands strove for. But tragically, it’s been in slow, steady decline since the mid-90’s. For some unknown reason, bands stopped trying to put out great albums. The focus shifted to simply putting out what would sell. Sadly, what sells and what goes down in history as awesome, memorable music are not always one and the same. It takes a lot less talent and creativity to focus solely on what sells.(See N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Creed, and Nickelback.) But like many things, absence makes the heart grow fonder. The fewer and fewer great (or even good) albums I’ve seen, the more I’ve thirsted for them. For even just one album that looks, feels, and sounds like someone reached a little higher and put everything he had into making something great.

That’s what Axl did. He has given us a great album. He told the hecklers to shove it and fired every manager who tried getting him to release Chinese Democracy before he was ready. One quote sums it up perfectly:

Rose is now managed by Irving Azoff and Andy Gould, who can be forgiven a little hyperbole, having finally got Rose the autocrat to relinquish his hold on Chinese Democracy. ‘When they asked Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, they didn’t say, “Can you do it in the fourth quarter?”‘ said Gould. ‘Great art sometimes takes time.’

Good for him. He might be a hypersensitive, neurotic perfectionist, but it comes from a good place. He didn’t want the world to see this thing until he believed it was great.

Maybe Axl is a jerk in private life. Who knows? What I do know is that he deserves some serious props for putting this album out.

Someone had to.

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