Duff McKagan, Guns N’ Roses’ second-best singer (or is it third-best? where’s Izzy?), gets woke on his mellow new solo album. Amid twanging steel guitars, gospel backup singers and fiddle filigrees, he variously addresses America’s opioid epidemic, school shootings, sexual assault, homelessness and his own transgressions, but it never feels too corny or cloying since there’s always sincerity in his voice. It’s music of conscience, heavy songs with a light touch.
His secret weapon here is producer Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon), who helped him assemble a murderer’s row of studio musicians. There’s authenticity in the country-leaning arrangements and the mood always matches McKagan’s message. When he sings “a little tenderness is what we need” on the title track, there’s a low church organ hum buttressing his hope. When he asks, “Do we have to watch another mother cry?” on “Parkland” — a song that also namechecks the Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings — his backing band plays swelling slide guitar as that same organ sizzles in the background, giving way to stomping and chains clanging for the chorus, “Oh, shit, have you heard about Parkland? Yeah, it happened once again.” It’s both raw and sobering.
The one solution McKagan offers for all the world’s ills is that people communicate better. On slow-drawling “It’s Not Too Late,” he pleads, “Take a long walk and meet your fellow man” as steel guitar fades in and out around his nasal whine. It’s a far cry from the scabrous (albeit tongue-in-cheek) tunes like “It’s So Easy” and “Used to Love Her” that he once co-wrote with GN’R; in fact, Tenderness is very much an exact 180 from the band’s “One in a Million,” the homophobic, racist, xenophobic screed they recently removed from the track list on their Appetite for Destruction anniversary box set. This is his absolution.
Although some of the songs are a bit heavy-handed — “Parkland” offers no solutions even though the answer is obvious, and “Last September,” about domestic abuse, sort of lets the assailant off the hook by saying “his mama didn’t raise a man” — this is an album full of beauty and heart. It’s not all bleak, the catchy rocker “Chip Away” and Jennings duet “Breaking Rocks” both revel in the rough journey to redemption, and it ends with “Don’t Look Behind You,” which promises “the light is coming through.” Tenderness is a grand gesture that works. Woke looks good on Duff.