Chuck Klosterman: Chinese Democracy – a review of a review

klosterman reviews chinese democracy So, I thought that Rex Sorgatz was the only person in the world who cared about Chinese Democracy, but it turns out I was wrong. His college roommate, Chuck Klosterman, also cares a lot, and wrote a 1,900 word review for the Onion’s AV Club.

Now, the opening pages of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is some of my favorite neither-fiction-nor-nonfiction writing ever, and I’m generally all too happy to follow Klosterman on whatever flights of rhetorical fancy he chooses to explore. (It’s also tough to escape the fact that my writing style largely consists of biting him to whatever limited extent I’m able.) But I’ve read the Guns N Roses review twice now, and I’m just not sure I’m buying it.

I understand Klosterman’s position — I’m just about the same age as Rex and he, and so I understand that he’s got a lot of yarn to spin around Guns N Roses (just by way of example, check out a fake review of Chinese Democracy he wrote for Spin in 2006). This being (please God) the last time anybody will have any interest in reading about what’s left of GNR, he’s got the one chance to let it loose.

Klosterman’s gift is the ability to momentarily make the trivial seem monumentally important, and he goes all in here:

Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? . . . This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can’t psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.

I’m with him there, but it goes off the rails right away in just the very next paragraph:

Three of the songs are astonishing. Four or five others are very good. The vocals are brilliantly recorded, and the guitar playing is (generally) more interesting than the guitar playing on the Use Your Illusion albums. Axl Rose made some curious (and absolutely unnecessary) decisions throughout the assembly of this project, but that works to his advantage as often as it detracts from the larger experience. So: Chinese Democracy is good. Under any halfway normal circumstance, I would give it an A.

Am I the only one who zipped happily through that paragraph and didn’t at all see where it was headed? An A?! Since when does a competent rock album with three great songs get a fucking A? Here mainstream rock has been dishing up stagnant pop-punk since Kurt Cobain’s suicide (i.e. just about 20 years), with interesting music coming mainly from eccentric Brooklynites who get minimal play outside of pitchfork, and we’re seriously handing out good reviews to 46-year-old has-beens who manage to come up with 3 good songs and a pop-metal album that isn’t completely embarrassing?

Next, we’re then treated to a boilerplate “last real album” argument in which we are to believe that rock fans around the world will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Klosterman does, and that it’s good enough to be remembered as the end of the era before all music was downloaded track by track. Which is completely goofy, since even the albums alleged fans are streaming it on MySpace and downloading it off the Pirate Bay.

Continuing as though he were working off an Important Album Review Template, Klosterman next gives us the lyrical analysis paragraph, which is actually the highlight of the review. “The weirdest (yet more predictable) aspect of Chinese Democracy is the way 60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself.” Do tell. But we run into trouble again when the discussion turns to “the music.” If the warning bells haven’t begun ringing yet, what about when the praise for an album begins with “It doesn’t sound dated or faux-industrial.” And if you cherish, even in a small way, the Guns and Roses of yore, you’ll cringe at where this is going: “But it’s actually better that Slash is not on this album. What’s cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can’t imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff.”

I don’t know who that works for, but as I vaguely recall it, GnR gradually tanked artistically as Rose’s influence over the group’s direction grew and Slash’s waned. Buckethead may be an interesting guitarist, but I suspect he’s playing Philip Seymour Hoffman to to Axl’s Robin Williams in Patch Adams here.

But don’t get me wrong — reading this review is still way more fun then entertaining the prospect of listening to the actual album. Towards the end, Klosterman goes off on one of his two-tangents-a-minute romps, speculating at great length about why Axl Rose chose to sing one particular line in one particular song in the particular way he did, along the way winding his way through an Extreme comparison, a James Bond reference, and the entirely probably speculation that there are 400 hours of vocal takes of this one particular song on tape somewhere. “Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, ‘What was Axl doing here?’ but ‘What did Axl think he was doing here?’” Maybe so, but how compelling is either question, really? And is it going to make this album worth listening to?

Klosterman concludes with a sincere and heartfelt deceleration that this is, in his honest opinion, a Good Album. He sounds like he means it, but I actually sort of hope he doesn’t. I hope he just figures that making a big deal out of Chinese Democracy makes sense for him, and making a big deal out of it being good is more plausible then making a big deal out of it being predictably lame. He seems oblivious to the fact that much of the anticipation that existed at one point for Chinese Democracy has fizzled out years ago, and that CD is little more then the present day Two Against Nature — very few people care today, and nobody will care or remember 6 months from today.

In the end, Spin Magazine’s actual review of CD, brief and mildly dismissive, seems like a much more measured response. And if you want some primo Klosterman, go read his piece on R Kelley’s Trapped in the Closet, or better yet Sex Drugs and Coco Puffs.

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