The egos have landed. Earlier this week, Guns N' Roses' long-awaited "Chinese Democracy" and Kanye West's "808s & Heartbreak" were released on consecutive days, setting up a titanic struggle for the Billboard No. 1 album spot. On first glance about as distant from each other as imaginable, Axl Rose and Kanye West have a surprising amount in common. They both see themselves as arch-individualists in a pop world of industry-reared sheep.
Just how mavericky are these guys? Axl Rose made his fans and record company wait nearly two decades for the follow-up to "Use Your Illusion I" and "II," funneling millions of man-hours and dollars into a project that always had about a million-to-one chance of not failing to live up to expectations -- the "Heaven's Gate" of hard rock. Kanye West didn't keep anybody hanging around (he likes being in the public eye and ear), but he has defied expectations with this, his fourth album in five years: He's a rapper, but on "808s & Heartbreak," he sings, and instead of his usual up-tempo, uplifting hip-hop, the album largely consists of morose ballads.
Both performers intend their albums to be received as masterworks of "capital A" Art. West has paved the way for "808s" with talk of his compulsion to make "pop art" and his desire to take hip-hop to the level of the Beatles, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. At the American Music Awards, he proclaimed, "We're going to push this music to the point where it was like in the '60s, in the '70s." On the song "Welcome to Heartbreak," he declares, "I can't stop having these visions," while his MySpace page features the pompous motto "Our work is never over."
Guns N' Roses, of course, always aimed to enter the pantheon of classic rock, signposting their ambition with ballsy, overblown covers of songs by Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols and Paul McCartney and attempting to top the success of "Appetite for Destruction" with the hubris and gigantism of "Use Your Illusion I" and "II." "Chinese Democracy" and "808s & Heartbreak" are each full of rage and anguish, of the sort you'd half-think megastars would be able to pay somebody else to feel on their behalf: Axl strikes typically embattled, I-won't-change-for-you (and certainly won't speed up my work-rate) postures, while West's torment emerges out of romantic pain and "It's lonely at the top" self-pity.
Most intriguingly, the records have something else in common: a sound that draws your attention to the technological artifice of recording. The difference is that "Chinese Democracy" is the victim of its means of production, whereas "808s & Heartbreak" turns the digital denaturing of sound into a positive aesthetic. Rose strives for majesty and produces a monstrosity, while West turns damaged sound into beauty.
It would be lovely to think that the vigorously polished turd that is "Chinese Democracy" could serve as the tombstone for an entire era of mainstream rock marred by misguided production techniques pushed by the record industry and radio alike. "Chinese Democracy" takes the two hallmarks of recorded rock sound of the modern era -- compression and an overreliance on the digital editing platform Pro Tools -- and amps their signature defects to a hideous intensity.
Compression is not intrinsically evil. It can make records sound more exciting, and equivalents to the effect were used as far back as the '60s. The process "simply reduces the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a piece of music," in the words of technical writer Paul White, creating the illusion that it's louder. It makes songs jump out at the listener. Your most common encounter with excessive compression is probably TV commercials, which is why when the ad break comes on you'll often find yourself reflexively lowering the volume. Over-compression in music squeezes the depth out of the sound: Noisy guitar rock in particular sounds muddy and yet flat, a plane of overbright blare that tires the ear. But "the loudness war" keeps escalating because labels need their bands' releases to be "competitive" on the radio, where stations add further compression to compete with rival broadcasters. And there is a generational shift toward tolerating degraded sound, as more and more people listen to music primarily as MP3s, which are then heard via computer speakers and iPods.
Pro Tools, like compression, is not invariably abused, but it does encourage fruitless perfectionism, with the temptation to add and remove and tweak and restructure, which often results in a densely layered, supersaturated sound. One common Pro Tools function is "drum sound replacement": If, say, the snare drum doesn't punch through to your satisfaction, you can either create another one in laboratory conditions or take it from a CD of sampled drum sounds, easily replacing every snare hit in the drummer's performance.
The result, audible on "Chinese Democracy," is a bionic precision that forgoes any real looseness and swing (one of Guns N' Roses' virtues back when it was an actual band circa "Appetite for Destruction," as opposed to Axl Rose plus a teeming ensemble of hired hands). Pro Tools makes it easy, once you've got a perfect take of a guitar part or backing vocal, to cut and paste that element repeatedly across the song, in the process creating a subtle monotony that may not rise to the forefront of the listener's consciousness but is felt as a subliminal absence.
Pro Tools is just a tool, of course, and the defects of "Chinese Democracy" ultimately come down to the humans using it, and the infinitesimal aesthetic choices they made during its unnaturally prolonged creation. Another problem is the excessive number of talents that have passed through the project: There were six guitarists, including Rose (but excluding guest players Brian May and David Navarro, both left on the cutting-room floor). "Chinese Democracy" has almost as many credits as a modern-day action movie, and there is something about its overall sound that reminds me of CGI. Like the fight scenes or exploding cities in CGI-addled movies -- in which no stunt men were ever in jeopardy, no debris ever hurtled -- the sound of "Chinese Democracy" is spectacular but numbing, a simulacrum of rock's wildness and untamed energy.
Here and there, the methodology pays off. Some of the song intros are eerily ethereal in a way that suggests the more interesting record Rose might have made if he hadn't been wedded to making a rock 'n' roll record. And on "Shackler's Revenge," space opens repeatedly for a thrilling piece of digitally sculpted techno-rock, a corkscrewing riff like rotating knives in a slaughterhouse. But the bulk of that song succumbs to overload, with squealing solos and Rose's shrill vocals jostling to dominate the upper frequencies. "There Was a Time," "Catcher in the Rye" and "Riad n' the Bedouins" gesture at defiance and intensity, but the sound has no bite: It's like being mauled to death by a toothless pitbull, a horribly drawn-out way for your ears to die. "Madagascar" features a sample from "Cool Hand Luke," the prison boss drawling, "What we have here is failure to communicate," a curious act of self-plagiarism, since the exact same sound bite was used on the song "Civil War" back in 1991. But the "failure to communicate" unwittingly encapsulates the album's inability to connect. Nothing can cut through the smog of sound.
Guns N' Roses was always a phallic band -- Sunset Strip sex pistols from the name down to the "feel my serpentine" imagery of "Welcome to the Jungle." Doors hagiographer Danny Sugerman even compared Rose to the young Jim "Death and my cock are the world" Morrison. There's a gross tumescence to the sound of "Chinese Democracy" redolent of the 4-hour erections induced by Viagra: engorged but devoid of desire, a meaningless show of strength.
Not Viagra, but a Niagara of synthetic tears: That's the sound of "808s & Heartbreak." All of Kanye West's swagger has been knocked out of him by the twin blows of his mother's death and his breakup with fiancée Alexis Phifer. He has described the making of this record as "therapeutic for me…it’s better than suicide." If most of the songs address his love woes with an unexpectedly abject vulnerability, there's a different kind of self-exposure that many will find much harder to empathize with: the mewling of the self-absorbed superstar who's found -- surprise, surprise -- that the glittering prizes of wealth and adulation he's chased so hard make for a hollow-souled hell of a life.
"Welcome to Heartbreak," the second song, is the lament of someone who conquered the world but lost his life. West half-wishes he could go back to being a regular nobody, like the friend who "shows me pictures of his kids/ and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs." In another verse, he whines about being invited to a relative's wedding "by the lake/ but I couldn't figure out who I wanted to take/ Bad enough that I showed up late/ I had to leave 'fore they even cut the cake." Despite having too many girlfriends and too jam-packed a schedule, West's drive for greatness -- "gotta keep chasing these visions, gotta keep winning" -- denies him a normal life. "Amazing," similarly, combines fragility and doubt ("I'm exhausted, barely breathing"; "I'm a problem that'll never be solved") with delusions of omnipotence ("my reign is as far as your eyes can see; I'm the only thing I'm afraid of"). The navel-gazing nadir is reached in the final track, "Pinocchio Story." West bleats about the emptiness of luxury goods and fan worship, about how "I turn on the TV and see me/ And feel nothing." The chorus goes, "I just wanna be a real boy."
"808s & Heartbreak" belongs to a mini-genre of "woke up this morning/ got me the superstar blues" albums, alongside Nirvana's "In Utero" and Puff Daddy's "Forever." What redeems the record is its sound, whose intimate relationship with technology is emblazoned in the album's title. The Roland 808 is hip-hop's famous drum machine, a sound at once vintage and timeless, like the wah-wah guitar in rock. 808 bass lines (made by detuning the kick drum) are prominent in West's album, not in their typical block-rocking mode but as a subdued pitter-patter, the pulse of a worried heart.
"Heartbreak" refers to the emotion (West has had a bad year, no doubt) and also to a sound he's devised using studio technology, which is slathered over virtually every vocal on the album. "It's Auto-Tune meets distortion, with a bit of delay on it," he said in a recent interview. "And a whole bunch of fucked-up life. That's what I call my 'Heartbreak.'" Like Pro Tools, Auto-Tune is standard-issue technology in today's recording studio, where it's used to correct pitch errors, typically in vocal performances. There's hardly a radio-targeted rock record that doesn't feature Auto-Tune-enhanced singing: it's particularly noticeable with emo groups, maybe because it's disconcerting to hear that gloss of unreal perfection in the singer's voice when the music gestures at punky rawness.
Auto-Tune can also be deliberately misused or overdone. Radiohead dabbled with the device during the experimental "Kid A/Amnesiac" sessions, discovering that if you spoke words rather than sang them, the confused machine would try to assign notes to your speech and produce an impressively avant-garde-sounding cluster of dissonant and random-seeming notes. More typically, it's used to create a kind of cyber-melisma effect, a fluttery vocal sound simultaneously evocative of angelic purity and a lovelorn robot. The most famous early example was Cher's "Believe" at the turn of the decade, but since then the effect has popped up regularly in R&B and dance hall records, sometimes as a momentary glisten of posthuman perfection irradiating a particular line, sometimes coating the entire vocal in the gimmicky tradition of the 1970s vocoder and talk-box. This year it resurged as a fad sound, with the R&B singer T-Pain building a career around its glutinous, glucose texture.
Jumping on a bandwagon that's already been around the block several times doesn't quite fit the profile of a self-styled innovator, but West has made Auto-Tune his own, both by adding extra effects like distortion that push the sound to the edge of pain and by making it the defining sound of his new album. "808s & Heartbreak" starts with five down-tempo songs in a row that could be chips off the same sonic block, starting with "Say You Will" and climaxing with his smash hit single "Love Lockdown," whose dolorous melody is offset by an incongruously harsh clatter of drums. Because it's not just the vocals that are interfered with: Almost the album's entire sound palette is distorted. "Paranoid," the first of the few fast songs on the album, sandwiches a pretty melody between a grating synth riff and gnarly drum beats; "Robocop" is woven virtually completely from abrasively lo-fi sounds; and bursts of pure noise pepper "Coldest Winter."
Why is something that ought to hurt the ear so damn listenable? Partly it's because the tunes are so spare in their construction. But it's mostly because there's a unity of form and content. These abrasive digital effects -- noises that make the ear flinch, like the sudden surge of distortion on the vocal early on in "Love Lockdown" -- are motivated by the desire to find new ways to communicate pain. West wants to make his music sound how he feels, which is raw, skinless, unprotected.
"808s & Heartbreak" might start to exhaust your patience toward the end, as unrelenting misery piles up with songs like "See You in My Nightmares" and "Coldest Winter." But as a purely aural experience, it is never exhausting in the way that "Chinese Democracy" is. Rose wanted to create something of grandeur and beauty the way the classic rock gods did, but like the cosmetic surgery addict who doesn't know when to stop having operations, he ended up with something botched and grotesque: a face that can't transmit a recognizable emotion. Whereas West's cold and dehumanized sounds, which could have served as a mask, instead allow us to see right through him.