Why 'Chinese Democracy' Is Guns N' Roses' Second Best Album

Axl's overblown opus gets a bad rep, but it's better than you remember.

Ultimate Guitar

Within the next couple of days, it's expected that the classic line-up of Guns N' Roses will announce a 2016 reunion tour. Well, I say classic-line up -word on the street is that Axl, Duff and Slash are being joined by hired guns Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer and Dizzy Reed rather than Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler. Still, 3 out of 5 is Guns is enough for the average punter to fork out for a ticket and, provided they don't bottle it, the band's 2016 jaunt will undoubtedly be the most successful reunion tour of all time.

While I'm cautiously optimistic about GN'R's comeback, there is one thing that saddens me. The return of the old band means that the sole offering from the new band, 2008's "Chinese Democracy," will likely be consigned to the rubbish bin of history. And that's a shame, because I rate "Chinese Democracy." In fact, I rate it much higher than I probably should. After "Appetite for Destruction," it's my favorite record to have been released under the Guns N' Roses name. That's right. I like it more than both "Use Your Illusions," "GN'R Lies" and "The Spaghetti Incident" (to be fair, that last one is a no-brainer - 'The Spaghetti Incident" is terrible). Lunacy I know, but read on and I'll do the best to justify my position.

A Single Rose Does Not Guns Make

First though, a caveat. I should clarify that I don't actually consider "Chinese Democracy" a Guns N' Roses album. A single rose does not a six-shooter bouquet make and this is an Axl solo record in all but name. Thinking about it that way actually makes the listening experience much more enjoyable. Remove the GN'R moniker and you remove the burden of expectation. You can evaluate the record on its own terms without being bothered by the absence of McKagan, Slash, Stradlin and Adler. This is especially useful, given just how far away the album is from the band's classic sound.

I'll Admit That the Production Is Overkill...

In the 20 or so years that Axl took to make the album, I'm guessing he wasn't revisiting his roots by spinning old Aerosmith and Rose Tattoo records. "Democracy's" influences are as much drawn from industrial metal, electronica, '70s Elton John piano ballads and John Williams film scores as they are from rock 'n' roll. Stylistically, it is completely all-over the place, featuring the most ridiculously overproduced sound in the history of recorded music. Silly synths and trip-hop beats, already dated when Rose started work on the record in the 1990s, were antiquated by the time it came out in 2008, much of which was made in negative reviews of the album at the time of release.

But the Songs Are Strong

Peel away the layers of samples and strings and you find that "Chinese Democracy's" song writing is remarkably focused. More so, in fact, than either of the sprawling "Use Your Illusion" albums. While Axl clearly spent at least half of the album's 2-decade recording schedule dicking around in Pro-Tools, he also put a fair amount of effort into crafting some decent tunes. Seven years after their original release, I still find myself coming back to tracks like "Street of Dreams," "There Was a Time" and (the awfully titled) "Riyad N' the Bedouins." And this is a big part of the reason why I rate it higher than the "Illusion" records. There's simply too much material on those albums and not all of it is good. Sure, you've got classics like "Civil War," "November Rain" and "You Could Be Mine," but they're sandwiched between clunkers like "The Garden," "My World" and "Locomotive" that dull the records' overall impact. GN'R clearly scraped together every possible song idea they had for those sessions (why else would there be two version of "Don't Cry" with different lyrics across the two discs?) and boy does it show.

Conversely, while clearly guilty of production overindulgences on "Democarcy," Axl at least learned his lesson regarding song selection. Whittling down the 30 songs written for the record to a more listener friendly 14 was an approach that paid off. I'd argue that there isn't a duff track on "Chinese Democracy" (thinking about it, given Mr. McKagan's absence, there literally isn't a Duff track). There are weird tracks that have no place on what is ostensibly a Guns N' Roses album, certainly (I'm looking at you "Shackler's Revenge"). But even those are good songs, testament to Axl's ability as a writer, and work really well within the context of an insane Gunsless Rose album.

Overblown, But Still Admirable

"Chinese Democracy" is an overblown, ridiculous record. The production is bonkers, the musical references often as far away from Guns N' Roses as you can imagine. Those are features of the album that its detractors will always point out. But, in spite of the inherent silliness of many of the production decisions, the scope is admirable. What's more, even if they don't sound like Guns N' Roses tracks, the songs are consistently excellent. Sure it's no "Appetite for Destruction," but it's a more coherent record than anything that followed it. Given the ridiculous gestation period of the record, the Charles Foster Kane-esque eccentricities of its creator and the revolving door line-up of producers and musicians that helped create it, that's a remarkable achievement, and one worthy of reappraisal.

By Alec Plowman

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It's one of my favorites. I enjoy listening to Chinese Democracy, and that's all that matters to me.
    I wouldn't say it's their second best album, but it's definitely underrated. "There Was a Time" is an amazing song.
    "In fact, I rate it much higher than I probably should." Should have stopped there, would have been a better piece.
    Proofreading is a thing, you know?
    Nope, not on UG.
    I agree, if you are able to judge art on its own terms, you may find Chinese Democracy worth many listens
    to me, this record is really no gunners album. bits and pieces from different band incarnations that became collected over more than a decade. from time to time i give it another chance because i think "c`mon, it can`t be that bad. listen to it again!" but it`s just not getting better over the years. i think there are one or two decent songs on the album. but as a whole, it really was and is a big disappointment. what i do like is axl`s singing on this record, but the songs and the arrangements are just horrible to me.
    Chinese Democracy is a great Album, BUT it's not GnR it's Buckethead anyone who has really listened to Buckethead Can hear SO MUCH of Buckethead in "Chinese Democracy" all the funky stuff, all the Odd Runs that fit, all the speed, all the non rock stuff that sort of cut in to pop or alternative , it's all buckethead, and there is just so much non rock stuff on "Chinese Democracy". Axl sounds like Axl for sure and that is GnR in every one minds ,.but the music is NOT LA Rock, it's Buckethead magic !!
    I agree completely. I've always told people to ignore the Guns N' Roses name and treat Chinese Democracy as an Axl solo album, because it's bloody brilliant regardless of anything else. Top record, still give this more listens than I do the Use Your Illusions (although obviously not Appetite).
    ChiDem should've been released under the name of Axl Rose. It would've mabe more sense that way. But anyhow, it's a great album. There's only one bad sond (Rhiad). ChiDem is Guns' second most cohesive album, after AFD. Illusions have a lot of hits, but also a lot filler songs. ChiDem is one of my favorite albums. I never get tired of it.
    It's definitely not gnr's second best album. It's not a bad album but not on par with the illusions
    It's hard to compare GNR albums to each other I think, they are all so different in terms of content and format. IMO, if you were to take your favorite tracks from UYI and condense them into a single 14 track album it would be more enjoyable than Chinese Democracy. With that being said, I think CD is still pretty good. I'm always glad its around when I'm in the mood for that kind of music but I'm sick of hearing all of the classic GNR tunes for the billionth time.
    I both agree and disagree. CD is an amazing album (regardless whether you want to call it Axl's solo record or whatever). What damages its overall impression is exactly what makes it a solid record - there are no bad songs on it. Sure, some are weaker than others, but they are not filler, and their scale isn't all over the place, like it was with both UYI. Which makes the album too tightly packed, there's no place for ears to rest. Perhaps it would have been better off if it followed that same way UYI did, having 2 albums with some amazing songs, that only shine brighter among their less impressive peers, something you can't really do when every (or near damn every) song actively competes to be the one in the spotlight.
    Actually, Chinese Democracy is gnr's BEST album But some people just don't consider "GNR" the same band as "Guns N' Roses"
    I do love this album and agree its probably my second favourite GnR/Axl record. However If The World is terrible and its not aged well. Often tracks on ablums for me that are filler start to grow on me as you listen to the album less, in a sort of novelty way. If the world is worse on every listen. Anyways. Its beautifuly recorded and the mastering is sublime with no compression on the overall mix (when have you heard that in the last 20 years!) allowing it to breathe. The songs on the whole are great and the performances are strong throughout. Shame with the reunion we are unlikely to see anymore output from the Hired Guns n Rose.
    Irwin Navarro
    It's not a GNR album. It's an Axl Rose solo album
    From the text you clearly didn't read: "...this is an Axl solo record in all but name" Read the fucking article, and you'll realize the author addressed your bullshit quibble within 3 paragraphs.