When Axl Rose announced in December 2006 that the new Guns N' Roses album, "Chinese Democracy," would be issued the following March -- the last false ending to a drama nearly as long-lasting as the Vietnam War and culminating today, as the hordes rush to exclusive retailer Best Buy to snap up the final version -- he briefly stepped out of the smoke-machine haze that surrounds him and feigned modesty. Vouching for the veracity and passion of his work, he seemingly aimed to lower expectations, writing, "In the end, it's just an album."

That may be the most ridiculous statement Rose has made in 17 years of whoppers. Just an album! Sure, and "Citizen Kane" was just a movie. And Brando as Don Corleone was just a mid-career acting gig.

Everyone with a passing interest in rock knows the abbreviated history of "Chinese Democracy." Recording for the album, the follow-up to Guns N' Roses' mammoth, chart-topping "Use Your Illusion" project, began in the early 1990s. Soon, though, Rose's authoritarian grip squeezed the life out of the original lineup, including his lead guitarist and artistic foil, Slash, and it went splat. Out of that goo rose the post-Guns band Velvet Revolver on one side and Axl, increasingly alone, on the other.

For the next decade and a half, Rose continued to work, running through band members like so many speed dates. Some, like avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, fled; others, like longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, stuck. This amorphous Guns N' Roses toured with varying degrees of success and spent time recording in 14 different studios in L.A., Las Vegas, London and New York.

Meanwhile, Rose got older (he's 46 now), decided he looked good in cornrows, and spent something like $13 million on a project few thought he would complete. The powers behind the already failing music industry gave a collective bloodcurdling scream.

The wait is over

And now it's here. The album that's been referred to as a "white whale" more times than Melville's own Moby Dick has been stabbed through with a spear and brought to ground. Fourteen tracks, no blubber.

Half the songs classify loosely as ballads, while the others are more forcefully up-tempo, but nearly every one makes unexpected stylistic switches. The effect is theatrical, with voicings and arrangements often taking precedence over riffs and grooves, making "Chinese Democracy" more like the score to a rock opera than an arena-oriented assault.

Like Brando and "Kane" mastermind Orson Welles, Rose is a macho refusenik whose career path illustrates how hard it can be for an ego-driven man to separate lofty ideals from fleshly indulgences. And though it's probably too cryptic to have the impact of the masterpieces to which I've dared compare it, "Chinese Democracy" does reach that far. Rose's fight to become and remain an auteur in a pop world increasingly hostile to such individualists has become a performance in itself. "Chinese Democracy" is its finale, the explosive end to a period of silence that, in retrospect, had its own eloquence.

It isn't exactly an accessible album, though many hooks and bombastic rock moments surface within its layers. Contrary to early reports, Rose didn't plunge into the "nu metal" style industrial rock that he'd embraced a decade ago with the lone track "Oh My God." Had he done so, producing an album's worth of static-laden ravers, like the album's first single and title track, he might have embraced middle age as a respectable experimental rocker. Conversely, had he fulfilled the dreams of the rabble who can't get past "Appetite for Destruction," reconnecting with Slash at the old intersection of punk and metal, he would have roared back as the king of the charts without making much artistic progress.

Instead, making this album has transformed Rose from a hungry contrarian to a full-blown desert prophet, howling mightily in protest against a pop industry that encourages its stars to innovate only within the realm of what sells best. At the same time, he's resisted the nostalgia that would have sent him after a purer time or sound, preferring to invest in a foggy future. Purity is the opposite of what Rose seeks on "Chinese Democracy." Convolution is everything as he spirals toward a total sound even he can't quite apprehend.

"Chinese Democracy" is a test for contemporary ears, an album that turns in upon itself instead of reaching out to instantly become a ring tone. Nothing on it immediately reveals its essence. Even the songs with hooks, such as the sing-song rant "Better" and the grande olde ballad "Street of Dreams," derail themselves in subtle ways, requiring the listener to reconsider her first judgment. This will frustrate plenty of listeners; lovers of "edgy" music may find it too melodic and rooted in the blues, while fans seeking simple catharsis may rue the many shifts in tone and tempo.

Versions of these final 14 tracks have been floating around the Internet throughout Rose's exile. Some may date from before the "Use Your Illusion" sessions. Rose kept building on them, rewriting, hiring and alienating all those producers and collaborators -- the album's credits, which include Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck and Primus drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia, read like an Oscar night thank-you list from hell -- and trying everything from multitracking his voice to resemble a children's choir to sampling the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

The end result is a cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness, traditional rock bravado and Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness. The snake-dance-inspiring rhythms that bring Rose's libido to life occasionally dominate, as do the romantic piano runs that represent his heart. Neither overcomes the other, and sometimes both collide in the same song.

Playing the reference game with "Chinese Democracy" is a thankless task. Individual songs could be compared to everything from Queen (Rose claims that influence, though he disposed of a guitar solo Brian May gave him for one song) to My Chemical Romance, Heart, Wings, Korn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Bowie in his Berlin phase, U2 after "Achtung Baby!" and Curtis Mayfield circa "Freddie's Dead." Oh, and to Guns N' Roses, especially the more cracked version of that band behind "Use Your Illusion II." But rarely does a song settle anywhere. It's even difficult to declare the ballads pretty or the rockers simply ferocious.

It's also pointless to dwell too long on individual players besides Rose. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed and bassist Tommy Stinson appear on most tracks; they must have been the most successful at tolerating Rose's megalomania. As for the album's much-touted guitar army: When five different players are featured on one song, individualism becomes impossible, no matter who's soloing. Many early Guns N' Roses songs are structured as literal dialogues between Rose and Slash, with the singer's wild falsetto directly responding to and setting up the guitarist's rococo riffing. "Chinese Democracy" features no such exchanges. The real tension here is internal, and Rose's alone.

It's the same push-pull that defines everything Rose has created, including his assumed name: steely, aggressive hypermasculinity versus lush, feminine openness. Rose's music tells the saga of the mutually abusive relationship between the freight train's axle and the rose it crushes, a potentially poisonous flower that keeps growing back.

This is a central plotline in male-centered heroic tales, and it's key to the music of artists as diverse as Richard Wagner and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But few artists have committed so strongly to both sides at once. Never mind the tales of childhood abuse and adult violence (often allegedly toward women) that fill out Rose's biography. All of that ugliness is right there in the music, in Rose's primal yowl and marauding metal-punk assaults. And anyone who's heard "November Rain" -- that's all of us -- knows that florid loveliness resides there too.

On "Chinese Democracy," Rose reflects on the cost of making art that fully expresses that dichotomy. This is where we return to "Citizen Kane," another story that plays out the tension between a wounded heart and an iron fist, and to Rose's soul mate Brando, who was also a brute and an aesthete, and who tragically misstepped as often as he triumphed.

Ever the enigma

Could Rose be self-aware enough to genuinely capture this life-defining conflict? He seems to be trying on "Chinese Democracy." But his lyrics, like the songs' musical twists, are hard to parse; their knottiness may be the album's ultimate downfall. It's tough to imagine anyone besides Rose connecting many of these songs to their day-to-day experiences. In "Rhiad and the Bedouins," he seems to be comparing himself to a besieged Middle Eastern state. "Catcher in the Rye" spits at mortality while nodding toward another famously blocked artist, J.D. Salinger, but its last verse devolves into incomprehensibility. "Madagascar," the one in which Rose pairs his voice with Dr. King's, is a sort of civil-rights-era- inspired retelling of Odysseus' journey across a monster-ridden sea.

At least that's what it sounds like to this listener, bringing my own history and imagination into the listening experience. Whether it's intentional or the result of Rose's addled grandiloquence, the strangeness inherent in these songs allows for an old-fashioned rock 'n' roll pleasure: the chance to grasp that album cover (OK, gaze at that image on your MP3 player screen) and make up your own solutions to its mysteries. Whether history declares it a tragedy or a farce, this is one album that's more than a pop exercise. And for that, Axl Rose can finally take a bow.