During a break from his participation in one of the highest grossing tours of all time (the Guns N’ Roses Not In This Lifetime…tour, for those who may have somehow missed the clamour of a GN’R reunion), Duff McKagan ventured once more into a solo project, consequently crafting his upcoming album Tenderness. Working with GRAMMY Award-winning country outlaw Shooter Jennings, who took a seat behind the producer’s desk as well as offering up his instrumental artistry, Tenderness leaves McKagan’s snarling bass lines behind in a dust devil, rambling on towards countrified balladry. Though the thought of McKagan’s gritty bass bravado being snatched away for the sake of country twang may make some fans wince, what McKagan has crafted is a masterful construction of intertwining instrumentation and stirring lyricism, an anthology of dark lullabies that’s much more The Rolling Stones than it is Luke Bryan.
The beauty of this album, first and foremost, lies within its lyrical significance. Like a menacing and twisted version of Disneyland’s It’s A Small World ride, Tenderness takes listeners on a journey of bleak global culture: from the #MeToo movement-inspired “Last September”, which inhabits a more mournful take on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” sound, to the clickbait berating “Chip Away”, which juxtaposes jubilant violin and spirited electric guitar with reprimanding lyricism. McKagan forms a dedicated companionship between lyricism and instrumentation within Tenderness, a reminder of the emotive power music can serve in times of cultural crisis. The haunting “Parkland”, a stirring track that draws a spotlight to the various horrors that the USA has been victim to such as the Parkland, Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, employs spectral keyboard and piano melodies that work to hit the gut with a sickening feel alongside the chilling reality of the track’s lyricism. McKagan returns to this critical theme in “It’s Not Too Late” (“I feel like hiding, I know you do too … Children are dying with guns in their schools. Screaming and shouting will surely go away some day…”), this time utilising weeping country guitar to emanate sorrow.
Tenderness presents a lost-and-found of hope, drawing on the aforementioned hopelessness whilst also making room for uplifting works of optimism and faith. “Feel”, which flirts with the sounds of 60s moguls such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, incorporates a keys-based tapestry of ceremonious organ, inspiriting piano and elated keyboard alongside golden gospel backing and hopeful lyricism: “Your star never fades.” Fans of McKagan’s Loaded will find a country hued re-working of “Wasted Heart”, a delicate ballad of devout romance from Loaded’s decade-old Sick that’s been ornamented with tender country twinkles, amorous strings and warm horns. Finale track “Don’t Look Behind You” finishesTenderness on a comforting ray of sunshine. “Don’t Look Behind You” crescendos like a rising golden glow in darkness, elevating in a level-by-level introduction of varying instrumentation, from the organic opening acoustic guitar to exultant horns to a saxophone that radiates with soul.
Though it’s (so) easy to yearn for the rugged angst we know and adore McKagan for, Tenderness is truly an album of its time. Whilst it is derived from a bleak social landscape, it offers a shelter from the rain, pairing stark lyrical integrity with musical sanctuary.