In an excellent review of Guns N’ Roses’ excellent new album, Chuck Klosterman writes, “The weirdest (yet most 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.” I’ll see Chuck’s point and raise him—the reviews of Axl’s opus also spend 60 percent of their space commenting on the process of making the album.
Of course, we shouldn’t judge the reviewers too critically since they rarely get 17 years and $13 million to work with. But one thing that keeps recurring in the assessments of Chinese Democracy, in addition to those two numbers, is the phrase “banshee [noun].”
- Spin (on the album’s title track and first single): “Once the overture of muffled voices, ominous drums, and plinky Edge-ish guitar gives way to a thick, muscular four-chord riff and that Axl banshee wail, only the most stubbornly jaded will manage to suppress the goosebump reflex.”
- Entertainment Weekly: “At times it’s possible to hear the world-changing CD that Rose—whose banshee howl remains gloriously intact—must have had in his tightly braided skull all these years.”
- Slate: “On Chinese Democracy, his voice is still an amazing, bludgeoning instrument, rising from demonic low rumble to piercing banshee wail.”
- TimeOut: “The only salient elements throughout are Axl’s outlandish banshee howl and numerous ludicrous guitar solos.”
- Blender: “. . . a blast of iMax Lynyrd Skynyrd complete with string section, a couple na-na-na refrains, several bridges to nowhere and lord knows how many latticed layers of Axl’s bandana-banshee singing.”
This raises the obvious question—what the hell is a banshee? My first guess was that it’s a flexible, downright lazy bit of rock-critic shorthand. Just in the archives of Rolling Stone, whose review did not deem Chinese Democracy banshee-fide, the phrase “banshee whatever” covers bands from AC/DC to the Replacements; it seems the guitars on Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy sound like a “banshee,” as does the Divinyls’ entire fifth album. Also banshee-like: Sinead O’ Connor.
Maybe it’s better to ask what was a banshee? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “banshee”—and the word dates back to at least the late eighteenth century—as “a supernatural being supposed by the peasantry of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands to wail under the windows of a house where one of the inmates is about to die.” But now that Chinese Democracy‘s actually out, it seems time to move past the mythological allusions to death, failure, and disease. Based on the album’s early success, might I suggest the “Orpheus croon“?