That album was recorded on downtime during the massive ‘Use Your Illusions’ world tour. Similarly, ‘Tenderness’ was written and recorded during Guns recent ‘Not In This Lifetime’ world tour. The difference? 25 years of sobriety, 25 years of losing friends to addiction and depression, and 25 years of life experiences and raising a family in a world that is increasingly dangerous and more fucked up by the day.
As the title suggests, ‘Tenderness’ is a much more sombre and reflective body of work than anything Duff has ever recorded. Observations of life on the road during Guns world tour gave the inspiration, and musically, it’s stripped bare. A rootsy, rock record, more akin to Exile-era Stones than the sleazy, Sunset Strip that made the band (and the man) famous.
Hooking up with Shooter Jennings to produce and shape his first solo album since those hedonistic days was a masterstroke. Like he did a couple of years back with Leroy Virgil from Hellbound Glory (check out the marvelous ‘Pinball’ album), Shooter used his own backing band to help sprinkle Nashville style magic all over the album.
Now, this backing band is like a modern day version of The Band, proper cool cats. I saw them perform 2 sets in a night at The Whisky-A-Go-Go, one with Hellbound Glory and then another with Shooter. They will be doing the same on Duff’s forthcoming European tour. When this rhythm section of bassist Ted Russell Kamp and drummer Jamie Douglass get together with fiddle player Aubrey Richmond and John Schreffler Jr on guitar, some sort of magic happens. It’s no surprise they are Shooter’s go-to guys. He knows what sound he needs and they deliver.
The title track opens the album and sets the scene. “Blackened days, we’ve lost our way” sings Duff over Shooter’s haunting piano, it sets the scene for the next 45 minutes. The country-tinged arrangement is perfection and the sentiment delivered with sincerity. The sparse musicianship never overplayed, just enough in all the right places to accentuate the melodies and the vocals.
By the time the last chorus is played out, you already have the desire to gather the ones you love and sing along in unison. Moving stuff indeed.
The social commentary Duff is laying out is perfect for these trying times and it’s something we can all relate to. “Turn off the screen, take a long walk and meet your fellow man…it’s not too late’ he sings on the following ‘It’s Not Too Late’, delivered with sincerity over mournful pedal steel and heartfelt violins.
The juxtaposition of the sweet music and the honest lyricism is on point and Duff is not afraid to tackle any subject, from addiction and homelessness to school shootings and abuse. Take ‘Last September’, a hard-hitting, yet beautifully delivered countrified look at the ‘#metoo’ movement. A lone acoustic breaks the silence like a ‘Nebraska’ outtake, before haunting, choral backing vocals join the lead vocals. Fragile, almost to the point of breaking. “She said no, he said yes, he held her down and choked her neck”. The hard-hitting lyrics are brutal and to the point, sung over laid-back, bare-bones Americana.
On a personal highlight, Shooter teases out Duff’s Johnny Thunders influences on ‘Wasted Heart’. The soaring vocals and sweet brass courtesy of The Suicide Horn Section (featuring Duff’s brother Matt McKagan on trombone) is sublime to these ears.
The hard-hitting ‘Parkland’ name-checks the schools affected by shootings and highlights the crazy US gun laws. It could have easily come across as being cheesy, but it’s handled in just the right way by someone who has bought up daughters in that environment. The more upbeat ‘Chip Away’ has a killer Rolling Stones vibe, as Duff drawls about smoking crack over Hammond organ, skiffle beats and handclaps that take us to church…divine.
Elsewhere, the hickey, hard luck story of ‘Breaking Rocks’ is brilliant in its simplicity. It fits the bill nicely, as Duff’s wavering vocals meet in a great duet with Shooter himself. Mental wah-wah guitars seal the deal. A song to sit on the porch and drink moonshine too.
The album closes with the reflective ‘Don’t Look Behind You’. Riding on acoustic and sparse accompaniment, before veering into almost lounge territory as the brass section are left to their own devices, with even a saxophone solo for good measure.
Duff McKagan has nothing to prove. He’s been there and done it all. He’s been (right next door) to hell and back and survived to become a better man. But every great musician needs to create and right now Duff has something to say and recording this album is the best thing he could’ve done.
For me, it’s as good as, if not better than Izzy’s Ju Ju Hounds, and it’s up there with Gilby’s ‘Pawnshop Guitars’.
As with past Guns n’ Roses members solo albums, ‘Tenderness’ will go largely unnoticed by the music buying (or streaming) public, which is a crying shame, as it is one of the finest releases this year and probably the best thing the man has put his name to since ‘Appetite For Destruction’.
Buy ‘Tenderness’ Here
Author: Ben Hughes