November 10, 2012 by NowhereButPop
Just as children are reflections of their parents, albums are the reflection of a band or artist. The only difference is that whereas a child is the overall reflection of immutable DNA and characteristics, albums are reflections of a specific point in time. They are whatever the artist dictates them to be all the way from their inception to their production. They are representations of the artist at a singular moment in time. For example Pink Floyd’s The Wall couldn’t have been made arbitrarily, specific factors had to have occurred at the precise moment they did in order for Roger Waters to formulate the concepts of The Wall together the way in which he did. The Wall wouldn’t have been made in or before 1973 because the band wasn’t at the point in their career trajectory where they could have been able to make The Wall. Better example, you can’t have In Utero without Nevermind, because the former is a reflection of who the band was because of the popularity of the latter.
As much as I hate to say it, Chinese Democracy is Axl Rose’s baby as it is his brainchild. The album is the sole creation of Axl and it sounds like it. Even Slash once said that the album sounded exactly like what he thought it would have sounded like. People close to Axl have said that it was the album that he wanted to make after “The Spaghetti Incident?”. I don’t know if that is necessarily true though. Had the band not broken up and made a true follow up to Use Your Illusion I think it would have sounded like a cross between Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Toys in the Attic, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Regardless of what it could have been, Chinese Democracy eventually saw the light of day in 2008 and was met with good reviews. The one thing every review had in common was that it wasn’t worth a 15 year wait. No album is. Had it come out in 1997, it could have been one of the best albums of the 90s, instead we’re left feeling jaded, wondering what the delay was about in the first place. There is one thing though that Chinese Democracy does more than any other album I’ve ever heard before.
Chinese Democracy is not merely an album, it is a meta-album. Instead of just capturing the feel of the span of time that the album was recorded in, Chinese Democracy shows just how Axl has changed over the years. This is because all the songs were written, and recorded at different times, sometimes years apart. Some songs were first written in 1994, others in 1999, and others even in 2006. Imagine a 15 year recording process where you’re constantly coming up with new material. Something you wrote five years ago may no longer hold any meaning to you, so you’d probably exclude it from the final cut of the album. Axl didn’t though and it really accentuates the album as being a life-work akin to Kubrick’s A.I. Some of the songs even contradict each other which shows how the album became just a lens into the thought process of Axl’s mind. The contradictions show how each song is in itself a reflection of the time in which it was made instead of the album as a whole. In short, the album is a summary of everything Axl felt in a 15 year period instead of in the span of a few months, which most albums are. This is an all encompassing tour of who he was in 1994 to who he has become in 2008, when the album was released. The only downside is that the listener is only shown the what and not the how or why. Despite this though, once you gain an understanding of when each song was written and what they’re about, the album becomes incredibly comprehensive. I think it’s for this reason why Axl didn’t arrange the track order in chronological order; to prevent it from being too straightforward.
The best place to start would be the simplest and most straight forward example. The penultimate song on the album “This I Love” was ironically the first song written for the follow up to “The Spaghetti Incident?” back in 1994. “This I Love” is a candelabra ballad in which Axl rues over his failed relationship with (Victoria’s Secret) model Stephanie Seymour. Not only does he mull over the relationship, but he also wonders if they will get back together noting that there is still some hint of love between them. Written in 1994, and included on an album 15 years after its conception might make the song vapid, but such is not the case. Listening to the song some 15 years later is the same as looking back at old photos of an ex and remembering the feelings you felt for them at the time, and how things have changed since then. The fact that you don’t have those feelings anymore, doesn’t lessen what you had, it just shows how you’ve changed since that time. It contrasts the ideal from the real. At the time, ideally, you didn’t want to be with anyone else, but in reality the relationship wasn’t worth it or viable enough to last. Ideally, in 1994, Axl would have wanted to get back together with Stephanie Seymour, but in reality it just wasn’t in the cards, and by 2008 they never got back together. For Axl, putting “This I Love” on Chinese Democracy is the same as one of our peer’s facebook stalking an ex not out of love or any strong emotion, but sentimental value.
The majority of songs on the album (approximately 6 of the 14) are written about Stephanie Seymour. The third and fourth tracks on the album “Better” and “Street of Dreams” represent the depression from the breakup. Presumably written around 2001, both songs acknowledge that the two will never be together and try and make sense of it in the usual fashion: depression and eventual anger at the other person. Both songs recognize that Axl is still hurt; “Street of Dreams” acknowledges that although he realizes that they weren’t right for each other, the pain from the breakup is still there. “Better” realizes that although he once loved her that part of his life is over, and that it’s time to move on even though the memory and pain is still there. The point is that a typical album would probably revolve around the sadness aspect of the breakup, but because Chinese Democracy took so long to produce we get songs from different years that reflect different emotions. From the melancholy pondering of “This I Love”, to the bitter realization of “Street of Dreams” and to the stubborn rage of “There Was a Time” not only is the time difference between each song’s creation heard, but also the difference over time in Axl’s feelings.
To say that Stephanie Seymour influenced half the album is no understatement as Axl has said that after the breakup he was depressed for years and couldn’t write for years. If 50% of Chinese Democracy is dedicated to Seymour, then the other half is focused on the former members on the band (“Sorry”, “Madagascar”, and “Riad N’ the Bedouins” to name a few) the death of John Lennon (“Catcher in the Rye”) and expectations of the album itself (“Prostitute”). It is with “Prostitute” the final song on the album that I will conclude on.
How many songs can you think of that are a response to all the criticism about itself? That is exactly what the final track is about; it’s Axl explaining himself for all the delays that preceded the album’s release. A song of that nature can’t exist on a regular album. This leads me to believe that “Prostitute” was the final or at least one of the last songs written for the album. The song is aware of itself and its place within the album, no other reason could explain why it is the last song on the album. In it he basically says that he wanted to put the album out on his terms and that to do otherwise would be akin to prostituting himself to the demands and pressures of those around him. The very first line “Seemed like forever and a day” sums up our expectations and restlessness about the album. A song like that can only exist because of the long period of time that it took to release the album. It’ a coda, or better yet an epilogue to the 15 year recording process of Chinese Democracy and the closest thing us fans will ever get to an apology from Axl.
If Axl Rose could undergo parthenogenesis, that child would be Chinese Democracy. The album is the embodiment of everything Axl was and did in that 15 year period of time. Each song is a snapshot of him at different times. “This I Love” is Axl in 1994, “Chinese Democracy” is Axl in 1999, “Street of Dreams” is Axl in 2001, and “Prostitute” is Axl in 2007. It’s the same person at different times in his life, with different opinions and emotions. It’s the autobiography of Axl Rose, covering the 15 most reclusive years of his life. It’s his gospel alright, but it doesn’t necessarily make it good news.
 This has never been explicitly stated, and is merely a hypothesis borne from my reading between the lines