To put Chinese Democracy in some perspective: it arrives 17 years after the twin Use Your Illusion, the last set of original music by Guns N' Roses. Consider that 17 years prior to the Illusions, it was 1974, back before the Ramones and Sex Pistols, back before Aerosmith had Rocks and Toys in the Attic, back before Queen had A Night at the Opera -- back before almost anything that Axl Rose worships even existed. Generations have passed in these 17 years, but not for Axl. He cut himself off from the world following the trouble-ridden Use Your Illusion tour, retreating to the Hollywood Hills, swapping every original GNR member in favor of contract players culled from his mid-'90s musical obsessions -- Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, Robin Finck from Nine Inch Nails, Buckethead from guitar magazines -- as he turned into rock's Charles Foster Kane, a genius in self-imposed exile spending millions to make his own Xanadu, Chinese Democracy.
Like Xanadu, Chinese Democracy is a monument to man's might, but where Kane sought to bring the world underneath his roof, Axl labored to create an ideal version of his inner world, working endlessly on a set of songs about his heartbreak, persecution, and paranoia, topics well mined on the Illusions. Using the pompous ten-minute epics "Estranged" and "November Rain" as his foundation, Axl strips away all remnants of the old, snake-dancing GNR, shedding the black humor and blues, replacing any good times with vindictive spleen in the vein of "You Could Be Mine." All this melodrama and malevolence feels familiar and, surprisingly, so does much of Chinese Democracy, even for those listeners who didn't hear the portions of the record as leaked demos and live tracks. Despite a few surface flourishes -- all the endless, evident hours spent on Pro Tools, a hip-hop loop here, a Spanish six-string there, absurd elastic guitar effects -- this is an album unconcerned with the future of rock & roll. One listen and it's abundantly clear that Axl spent the decade-plus in the studio not reinventing but refining, obsessing over a handful of tracks, and spending an inordinate amount of time chasing the sound in his head -- that's it, no more, no less.
Such maniacal indulgence is ridiculous but strangely understandable: Rose received unlimited time and money to create this album, so why not take full advantage and obsess over every last detail? The odd thing is, he spent all this time and money on an album that is deliberately not a grand masterpiece -- a record that pushes limits or digs deep -- but merely a set of 14 songs. Compared to the chaotic Use Your Illusion, Chinese Democracy feels strangely modest, but that's because it's a single polished album, not a double album so overstuffed that it duplicates songs. Modest is an odd word for an album a decade-plus in the making, but Axl's intent is oddly simple: he sees GNR not as a gutter-rock band but as a pomp-rock vehicle for him to lash out against all those who don't trust him, whether it's failed friends, lapsed fans, ex-lovers, former managers, fired bandmates, or rock critics. Chinese Democracy is the best articulation of this megalomania as could be possible, so the only thing to quibble about is his execution, which occasionally is perplexing, particularly when Rose slides into hammy vocal inflections or encourages complicated guitar that only guitarists appreciate (it's telling that the only memorable phrases from Robin Finck, Buckethead, or Bumblefoot or whoever are ones that mimic Slash's full-throated melodic growl). Even with these odd flourishes, it's hard not to marvel, either in respect or bewilderment, at the dense, immaculate wall of god knows how many guitars, synthesizers, vocals, and strings.
The production is so dense that it's hard to warm to, but it fits the music. These aren't songs that grab and hold; they're songs that unfold, so much so that Chinese Democracy may seem a little underwhelming upon its first listen. It's not just the years of pent-up anticipation, it's that Axl spent so much time creating the music -- constructing the structure and then filling out the frame -- that there's no easy way into the album. That, combined with the realization that Axl isn't trying to reinvent GNR, but just finishing what he started on the Illusions, can make Chinese Democracy seem mildly anticlimactic, but Rose spent a decade-plus working on this -- he deserves to not have it dismissed on a cursory listen. Give it time, listening like it was 1998 and not 2008, and the album does give up some terrific music -- music that is overblown but not overdone.
True, those good moments are the songs that have kicked around the Internet for the entirety of the new millennium: the slinky, spiteful "Better," slowly building into its fury; the quite gorgeous if heavy-handed "Street of Dreams"; "There Was a Time," which overcomes its acronym and lack of chorus on its sheer drama; "Catcher in the Rye," the lightest, brightest moment here; the slow, grinding "I.R.S."; and "Madagascar," a ludicrous rueful rumination that finds space for quotations from Martin Luther King amidst its trip-hop pulse. These aren't innovations; they're extensions of "Breakdown" and "Estranged," epics that require some work to decode because Axl forces the listener to meet him on his own terms. This all-consuming artistic narcissism has become Rose's defining trait, not letting him move forward, but only to relentlessly explore the same territory over and over again. And this solipsism turns Chinese Democracy into something strangely, surprisingly simple: it won't change music, it won't change any lives, it's just 14 more songs about loneliness and persecution. Or as Axl put it in an apology for canceled concerts in 2006, "In the end, it's just an album." And it's a good album, no less and no more.