So did it really come out today, Chinese Democracy, the Guns N' Roses album 15 years in the baking, faking, heart-breaking? And if did manage to buck the space-time continuum and find its way onto store shelves, do you still care about the wild Axl Rose, the pariah, the punchline, the genius who chased away old mates Slash, Duff, Izzy & Co. just when things were getting good? You think about it. I'll go first. Geffen Records has been sending me a slow trickle of official digital tracks. The Web is smattered with streaming feeds of the entire album. And Best Buy, which scored an exclusive distribution deal, has been hyping Sunday, Nov. 23, as THE day. At last, there's something to hear. Growing up a Guns N' Roses fan (and convinced that '87 debut Appetite for Destruction remains one of the great albums of all time), I care a lot about Chinese Democracy. Heck, if it were being released during the week, I'd vote for a national holiday. But I'm in the giddy minority. In the nearly two decades Axl has been threatening to release this metal opus, Chinese Democracy has become a cautionary tale of excess, a catchall for false promises. "Hey, Larry, where's that business report you promised? You're not going to pull a Chinese Democracy on me, are you?" But now, at last, it's here. Probably.
So is it any good?
If the stories/rumors/preshow chatter among suburban dirtballs at every metal show since '91 are true, Axl chased away his original band members when he started opting for fever-dream production gloss (see every other song on Use Your Illusion I & II) over tried-and-true gutter-blues guitar grind. He liked it clean; his bandmates wanted it dirty.
So it's no surprise that Chinese Democracy opens with a special-effects sea of otherworldly voices, a mesmerizing peek into the singer's cluttered brain. What follows is a treatise on the Hell of Being Axl: vainglorious, odd, frequently AWESOME.
It's easy to rip on the 46-year-old artist. On the flat-tired Shackler's Revenge, a nod to Nine Inch Nails, he echo-duets with himself, sincere Good Axl vs. Bad Axl. And on Street of Dreams, he initially sounds like Vlad the Impaler. Oof. It's a bad start.
But for all his eccentricities, Axl remains a peerless showman, a cross between P.T. Barnum and that quietly awesome dude in high school with the denim Sabbath jacket. The song Chinese Democracy is an impenetrable wall of sound— until it's not, and a sledgehammer of shred unites crusty old rockers and preteen Guitar Heroes. After that bizarre opening, Street of Dreams settles into a gorgeous swoon of piano grandeur, crashing power chords and Rose's blood-operatic wail ("So now I wander through my days, trying to find my way").
With all those false starts, could it be that Chinese Democracy is really about patience, about delayed gratification? There is nothing as instantly edible as Welcome to the Jungle. Few songs pull in under five minutes. Instead Axl follows his theme of frustration, then jubilation, to the very end of 14 tracks. It isn't always comfy, but it sure is bold.
If the World and There Was a Time are head-snapping duds, Axl trying out every button on the console (ooh, look a barbershop quartet!). But they perfectly set up Catcher in the Rye, a wistful breath with Axl equating himself to Holden Caulfield or, more likely, the reclusive J.D. Salinger.
Scraped is a dumping ground for all the ideas he couldn't find homes for, but the majestic Sorry is like Dream Weaver on 'roids, with an underwatery guitar solo by one of the umpteen session guys he brought in (Buckethead? Bumblefoot? No clue).
You have to wade through half the disc before you get to the best track, Riad N' the Bedouins, a ferocious slam at his enemies and co-workers. (Note the tell-tale N' in the title.) It's perfect for his patented slither dance: "Riad and Bedouins had a plan and thought they'd win / But I don't give a [bleep] because I'm crazy!"
The prickly I.R.S. crescendoes to a tsunamic crash of yelp and thunder, and it's wisely followed by Madagascar and the painfully bare This I Love, power ballad cousins to November Rain.
It's not an easy album to put your arms around, but you can't accuse Axl of not trying. There isn't a second he didn't sweat over. The ultimate problem with Chinese Democracy won't be living up to expectations, but the death of anticipation.
The waiting is over.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.