Whether Chinese Democracy would be good or bad hardly seemed to matter for most of the last 10 years. The wait for the long-delayed new Guns N’ Roses album was, for a certain demographic, more like the evangelical anticipation of the second coming of Jesus Christ than a CD release. Those of us who have paid the least bit of attention to the $13 million saga that’s unfolded over the last 18 years just wanted to stay alive long enough to see it. It would be an event to transcend history and human understanding, never mind the humble craft of pop-music criticism. (When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride through the sky as the heralds of Armageddon, or when that mile-wide asteroid finally crashes into New York or Tokyo, who’s going to take the trouble to write a review of it?) Nobody in the real world—you know, the world outside of Axl Rose’s head—actually expected the music to be any good. More precisely, the question of whether the music would live up to the wait was barely even considered, because no one had ever heard the kind of music that would match the legend. It would take an orchestra of virgin angels playing instruments stringed with wine and honey to be good enough to finally be Chinese Democracy.
The largely unspoken hope underlying all the build-up, especially as an actual release date got closer, was that Axl Rose’s total and all-enveloping batshittery—his monomania, his persecution complex, his perfectionism, his sense of insulated self-pity—would find a musical expression so appropriately over-the-top, so maniacally baroque, that it became a grand artistic monument to navel-gazing self-importance.
Now that it’s out—well, I miss living in a world waiting for Chinese Democracy. Rose ended up with pretty much the disc he was going to make. It’s about as close to the idealized version of itself as the world could bear, an insanely overproduced and overstuffed mashup of post-grunge hard rock, piano ballads, industrial rock, and guitar solos so dense that they threaten to collapse on themselves. (Most tracks credit all five of the guitarists involved in nearly a decade of recording.) It sounds like it really did take 18 years to record—there’s just that much extra crap jammed into every space and on top of every note. But it’s neither as good or as bad as it had to be to make it all worth it, for Rose and for us. It was much better as something that never existed at all.