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At Long Last, 'Chinese Democracy' Exists

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses performs at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses performs at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002.

Even now, it's hard to believe that Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy is real. You can walk into a store — for now, just Best Buy — and walk out with an album many thought would never exist.

It's been a myth and a punch line. Singer Axl Rose blew through more than $10 million — and numerous collaborators — in a decade of tinkering. So how does it sound?

Believe it or not, it sounds like a new Guns N' Roses record, with muscular guitars and vocals that squeal and seethe. Chinese Democracy can't live up to expectations — nor can it live down the delays that made it legendary. What you get, if you crack open the fevered brain of Axl Rose today, is more of the testiness and paranoia he's been peddling since the beginning.

Chinese Democracy opens with three bombastic ringers, but then the album gets flabby. A ballad called "Street Of Dreams" shows why the phrase "street of dreams" should be banned from rock music. "Madagascar" didn't need a string section or a sample from the "I Have a Dream" speech. And Guns N' Roses' big guitars sound overproduced and indistinct — they're too often used as blunt instruments.

Still, Chinese Democracy wins points just for entering the world. After all these years, hearing it is like finally seeing the monster at the end of a horror movie: It's no longer a mystery, but at least now, the real action begins.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)