Guns N' Roses

Many have grumbled that GN’R just ain’t GN’R without Slash & Co. But spinning Chinese Democracy—finally!—brings to mind a fascinating notion: What if the old Guns N’ Roses was actually holding Axl back? This record lives up to the hype in one crucial sense: Dear God, is it ever weird—a schizophrenic smattering of grandly symphonic pop, sleek industrial metal and hallucinatory trip-hop, topped off by Rose’s heavily processed yet surprisingly intact yowl. And unmistakably, it’s the work of a creative dictator. No actual democracy could have wrought something this twisted and elaborate.

Or, perhaps, this entertaining. Chinese Democracy comes off as a sweet, bitter and at times knowingly funny pop epic, on which a gripping hook balances every oddball juxtaposition. Case in point: the exquisite “Better,” which begins as fey R&B, then mutates from charging modern arena rock into brute postgrunge. Somehow, Rose and his myriad motley recruits maintain a spunky catchiness throughout.

The record is crammed with similarly WTF? episodes, like the Destiny’s Child–esque chorale of shrieking Axls that opens “Scraped” or the collage of MLK samples in “Madagascar.” However over-the-top the album gets, though, it never feels incoherent or silly; even the tearjerking ballad “This I Love” hints eerily at gothic mania. Whether the long march toward Chinese Democracy has left Rose genuinely disturbed or he’s just in the throes of some particularly turbulent muse, he’s ended up with a singular, exhilarating statement.

Chinese Democracy (Geffen)