When an artist spends a solid decade recording an album, it’s destined to be hated on (Dr. Dre, take note). Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy arrived 15 years to the day after the band’s previous release and in that time had become the stuff of legend.
In July 1999, Spin magazine ran a cover story on the album, which at that point didn’t even have a title, compiling all the crazy rumors surrounding it: Producers come and gone, a revolving door of musicians of all stripes (when it was finally released, Chinese Democracy’s credits were a mile long), Shaquille O’Neal was making a cameo, Axl Rose working out, going techno, and going through past-life regression therapy, etc.
The singer’s public appearances—even doing regular things like going to the movies or going shopping—were treated like Big Foot sightings. Many updates on the status of Chinese Democracy came and went until it was suddenly shoved out as a Best Buy exclusive in November 2008. It sold okay, more so internationally, but surely didn’t make back its reported $13 million in production costs. Reviews were mixed and longtime fans of the band weren’t very enthusiastic. In the end, it just seemed like a big joke.
But the album had two big pluses going for it. First, Axl’s voice proved remarkably well preserved, he sounds like he was cryogenically frozen after the recording of “The Spaghetti Incident?” and thawed out a dozen years later to make this album. Second, you get what you pay for, and Axl spent millions on session musicians here. It shows, particularly on the guitar work (check out Buckethead’s bananas solo on “Better”).
Chinese Democracy’s biggest flaw isn’t its songs, which are actually quite good, or the way they’re performed. It's really the delay. It just should have come out closer to when the recording began. By the time it was released it was obsolete, a bombastic blast of big budget rock dropped into a market that no longer supported or even understood such a product. It wasn’t made for iTunes or YouTube, Axl expected fans to pay $17.99 for a physical copy of the album, then go home and vote for his video on Dial MTV.