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"Chinese Democracy" track by track analysis from a first listen in a really loud club

Posted on November 18, 2008

Last night, a pack of mainly dudes (aged around 20s-40s) crowded outside of Webster Hall, a Manhattan dance club/hipster magnet best known for ejecting the Butthole Surfers last summer. No matter–the evening show was a free listening party for Guns N' Roses' light years-in-the-making new album, and Axl fanatics had been reportedly waiting for over five hours for a spot near the front of the line. Oh yeah, there were also free t-shirts, posters an appearance from guitarist Bumblefoot and coupons for free Dr. Pepper inside…but you were there to hear Chinese Democracy.

So…how was it?

Well, it's hard to be conclusive after one listen in a packed room over a questionably-mixed PA system. But how about some first impressions?

1. "Chinese Democracy"
Chants of "turn it up!" as the first minute of distant noises creep in. Huge cheers and applause when the first riff hits, and most of the room knows all the words already. It's hard to not get caught up in the energy, and the basic but effective riff sounds awesome at full blast. The song ends with an explosion, and all I can think is that it'd be great to hear live.

2. "Shackler's Revenge"
This one sounds like Rob Zombie roasting The Prodigy on a spit. Sure, Axl sounds like he's catching up to the mid-'90s industrial craze, but he's way overdue to cash in on NIN's success. Here it's unlike anything he's tried before, much less anything huge on rock radio these days. I didn't think much of "Shackler's Revenge" when it hit Rock Band 2 last fall, but after last night the chorus won't get out of my head.

3. "Better"
A more relaxed, but still antagonistic, change of pace from the openers with a pretty good melody. Maybe overproduced, but what do you expect on an album the credits 14 recording studios in the liner notes?

4. "Street of Dreams"
So far, the album's done a good job of maintaining the history of each Axl release sounding nothing like the one before it, but this echoes Axl's piano-epic side from Use Your Illusion I and II. A grandiose and somehow earnest ballad that recalls mellower Queen, "Street of Dreams" makes it clear that through all the bombast, rotating lineups, hype and controversy, there's a very human guy at the heart of Chinese Democracy.

5. "If the World"
A bizarre, almost hip-hop flavored slow jam that the guy next to me appropriately compares to "'70s porno music." Without Axl's voice, this would be nearly unimaginable as a G n' R track, saying "nearly" because nothing's unimaginable with this band anymore. The solo sounds Santana-inspired.

6. "There was a Time"
Really melody-driven, alive-sounding tune with orchestral strings, mellotron and effects-heavy solos scream "rock star excess" even more than the story chronicled in the lyrics. Still, it's pretty awesome.

7. "Catcher in the Rye"
Tuneful, midtempo rock song with an arena-ready chorus and a sweet guitar solo.

8. "Scraped"
REALLY strange, highly processed vocal intro, leading into another industrial-sounding, minor key riff and confessional lyrics. Too bad Diary of a Madman is already taken as an album title.

9. "Riad n' the Bedouins"
A rumbling, faint beginning breaks into the heavy song we've been waiting for. Axl's wordless, Robert Plant-esque rejoinder and some abrupt, aggressive guitar stunts leave a lasting impression, while everyone waits a few more days to figure out what the story of Middle Eastern Riad is.

10. "Sorry"
Sounds a little like ambient Pink Floyd, or maybe even a good Metallica ballad. The "I'm sorry for you/Not sorry for me" chorus is likely to get interpreted as a stab at former bandmates. A slow-burning Bumblefoot solo complements a strong chorus and a potent ending.

11. "I.R.S."
Axl throws everything into this one, letting his vocals rip over some hard-hitting vocals and an workmanlike blues scale. His vocal lines run over out of the basic progressions, reminding you that this is a man with a lot to say.

12. "Madagascar"
A cinematic, piano-heavy ballad with a looped beat and clips from famous speeches, the longtime live staple "Madagascar" is easily one of the album's most radio-friendly songs. Also, this is inarguably the second-best G n' R song to ever quote Cool Hand Luke.

13. "This I Love"
An unabashedly schmaltzy love ballad, more piano. It seems right, though–Axl's fulfilling his most extravagant ambitions, whereas trying to remake "Welcome to the Jungle" would end in self-parody.

14. "Prostitute"
Remember that scene in Walk Hard when John C. Reilly's character is told he has to write a song that recaps his entire life and culminates everything he's ever done? That's what Axl sounds like he's doing here. Over a pretty accessible tune, Axl makes the case that over all these tumultuous years, he still hasn't whored himself out.

Which makes sense–as infuriating as it is, he's turned down lucrative opportunities to reunite with his old band, rejected countless opportunities to get the new album and ignored the everyone's standards of what his music should sound like. Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but he did it his way.

Definitely want to hear this one again. Parts of it are awesome, parts of it are sub-par, some of it I'm sure will either grow or fall apart after several listens. But it's a fascinating listen, more so than many more consistent albums, and that alone will probably score it a lot of replay value.

It should also be noted that Bumblefoot gave an entertaining (and short) speech that touched on the band's lineup changes and downloading woes. He also signed autographs, and was as amiable a guy as there is in the music business, describing the album-making process to me as "Stupendous. Stu-fucking-pendous."

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