Album Review: Duff McKagan – Tenderness
When you’ve seen life from both top and bottom, you gain a good appreciation of how far it is between the two. If you’ve gone from the darkness back to the light, your emotions are likely to be of gratitude, of relief. It’s these feelings and emotions that underpin Tenderness, a reflective, pared- down, frequently revealing solo album from Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan.
Before opting to collaborate with country star and producer Shooter Jennings on these 11 songs, Duff envisaged the project as a new book – his third – reflecting on life, loss and love. The result is not, and was never intended to be, a rock record. Largely evoked on pedal steel and acoustic guitars, it’s a document of personal catharsis, looking back over the decades of his life and attempting to make sense of it all.
It opens with the title-track, which finds Shooter hitting sparse piano notes, allowing Duff’s words to resonate over gentle acoustic guitars. ‘Darkest days, the deals we made…God’s not around,’ he ruminates, perhaps reflecting on some of Guns N’ Roses’ less healthy pursuits during the band’s dysfunctional heyday. It moves towards a rousing chorus, backed by electric guitar, before returning to where it came from, the lyrics wishing for better days.
It’s Not Too Late furthers the positive vibe on which Tenderness ends, as does languid closer Don’t Look Behind You. Over sustained, silvery pedal steel sounds, Duff calls in the former for a return to the core values of humanity: ‘Turn off the screen and take a little stand, take a long walk and meet your fellow man.’ In Wasted Heart and Breaking Rocks, meanwhile, he sings in tones of hushed awe, the music and words dedicated to the significant others that stood by him during his days of alcohol abuse. Both have catchy hooks, but it’s the sentiment that strikes home – it genuinely feels as if the artist is finding ways of saying in song what he finds harder to articulate in real life.
Elsewhere, Last September and Feel are much darker, and for good reason. The former is quietly accompanied by violin, but the song’s gentility only amplifies the growing rage in Duff’s voice as he describes a violent predatory assault on a woman, and its aftermath. Feel, meanwhile, is a considered tribute to his former Velvet Revolver bandmate, the late Scott Weiland. It mourns the man that the bassist tried, unsuccessfully in the end, to help. A muted gospel choir adds depth to its sadness, which Duff – suffering the paradox of survivor’s guilt – addresses with the words, ‘All that remains is the love in my hands.’
There are further dark nights for the soul in Parkland, a scathing satire on America’s gun culture, and in Falling Down, in which dark, synthesised guitar spikes into a brilliant chorus. Chip Away, meanwhile, is the album’s most up-tempo, foot-tapping song, redolent of early David Bowie, bringing a welcome touch of ‘70s glam amid the country honk.
Throughout Tenderness, Duff takes a panoramic look through his past, one hand reaching for the holy water of exorcism, and the other raised in thanks for his journey’s happy resolution. It’s the work of a man expressing both gratitude and sorrow – while modestly overlooking his remarkable achievements. Country-fuelled it may be, rather than the expected full-pelt rock, but so open is this letter that it easily succeeds in transcending genres. It is, quite simply, the album Duff had to make.
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