There’s a lot of reasons to like Duff McKagan – crikey, if nothing else he was the bass player and co-writer on what is arguably the greatest album ever made – but here’s why I really do.
A few years ago I went to watch Alice In Chains play. Walking Papers (the band Duff was in for a while) opened before Ghost came on. After their set he went to the merch table and had time for everyone. Autographs, selfies, you name it.
No rock star bullshit, no thinking he was better than anyone else, but all the time realising how special he was to the crowd.
Just as much as he didn’t need to do that, he doesn’t need to make solo records either. But the fire that drives him to go and meet the public is the same as the spark that drives “Tenderness”. He does it – if we may paraphrase Billie Piper – because he wants to.
For this superb collection, though, all the bets are off. “Tenderness” is a collaboration with Shooter Jennings. And its time for a disclaimer here: just as much as “Appetite For Destruction” is probably my favourite album, then Shooter is my favourite country artist too.
That all being said, this could have been a car crash. But goodness me, it’s a copper bottomed gem.
For all kinds of reasons this is Duff McKagan as never before. Musically, yes that’s true, but also lyrically, “Tenderness” is very much a commentary on these turbulent times we live in. “Blackened days, we’ve lost our way” is the very first line on the record, but it also sets the tone.
As he put it in an interview himself when asked if he was going to write a book on GnR’s tour: “I decided the ideas swirling around in my head were better suited for a record. The heartbreak, anger, fear, confusion and divide I have experienced travelling this globe of ours coerced these words into songs that tell my truth, and one that I hope will spread and help us all.”
To that end, the slide guitar haunts, the piano adds a real depth, and McKagan’s lugubrious tones mixing with Jennings’ harmonies makes for a compelling sound. “It’s Not Too Late” has the air of some West Coast band from the late 1960s covering The Stones “Exile On Main St”, but the line about “turn off the screen…. and meet your fellow man” resonates right in the “now” as it were. That is to say, its harder to hate someone you know on a human level – and maybe that is at the heart of “Tenderness” throughout.
Saxophone flourishes add some colour to “Wasted Heart”, while the dark, stark imagery of “Falling Down” makes that one a real highlight. The over- prescription of drugs is becoming a crisis all over the world, and this lays it bare: “falling wages, Oxycontin takes its place…..” and the delivery is half-spoken as if in conversation with the listener.
“Last September” is a brutal exploration into domestic abuse, but “Chip Away” (musically at least) changes the vibe – and the message of hope that there is something new out there provides a silver lining.
The contrast in harmonies that has ran through this like a golden thread is right to the fore on “Cold Outside”, but if the organ on “Feel” gives it an almost gospel tinge, then the crescendo it finds in the end is pure Mott The Hoople.
“Breaking Rocks” is a wonderful duet with Jennings, but the phenomenal “Parkland” which takes an electro, pulsing look at the effects of gun culture, is a change in vibe, but a jarring piece of brilliance. The message of the whole record, essentially, is not to dwell on the past, and “Don’t Look Behind You” makes that clear, but somehow, in the music there is an inherent confusion that suggests it might not be as easy as that.
The fact this is just about as good a record as there’s been in the troubadour tradition so far this year is a shock, in truth. Those that thought Duff McKagan was merely the “punk” one in GnR will have to think again. This is not easy listening, and it has challenging themes, but its overwhelming message is simple: in the darkness and confusion, you are not alone.
“Tenderness” is brilliantly done.