Frankly, the age of 66 is rather late in the day for a multimillion-selling rock star to launch a solo career, but that’s what ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons did in 2015 with the Latin-tinged Perfectamundo. Three years later, the aptly titled The Big Bad Blues was half covers.
With ZZ Top on recording hiatus since 2012’s La Futura, perhaps Gibbons is simply bored, because here comes album number three. And he’s shifted the ground again. Recorded in the Californian desert with former Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver drummer Matt Sorum, one-time Slick Lilly leader Austin Hanks and, on the whip-smart Stackin’ Bones, Larkin Poe, Hardware is a riff-strewn feast of scuzz.
Gibbons is back to songwriting too, having a hand in everything bar Bob Dylan collaborator Augie Meyers’s Hey Baby, Que Paso, which he transforms into a cousin of Dire Straits’ Walk Of Life. The desert looms large, and not just in some of the Queens Of The Stone Age-style guitar, or on Desert High, where you can almost feel the sand in your throat: it’s everywhere, just under the surface.
Hardware is, in the best sense, dirty. Gibbons is at his gravel-voiced growliest, whether declaring ‘She’s all mine’ on She’s On Fire or, in more rueful but typically witty fashion, ruminating how ‘you’d think I was a highway the way she hit the road’ on I Was A Highway. He does all this against a backdrop of guitars that recall early Black Keys as much as Deguello-era Top.
Just as ZZ Top could surprise with a change of musical and emotional pace, such as with Rough Boy, so can solo Gibbons. The contemplative Vagabond Heart finds him shedding the cartoon image, looking back and facing his faults. ‘I’ve been a liar and a thief, a gambler and a cheat’, he confesses, but he’s still unable to let go of his restless lifestyle: ‘I’m movin’ on and I don’t know why/This could be my revelation.’ We’re a long way from Legs.
Elsewhere, though, it’s business as usual, and business is good. There are more drug references than you might expect from a man in his eighth decade, his women seem to want him for his money, and he’s still driving (more accurately, ‘rollin’’) his Camino.
Gibbons sounds like he’s having a ball, finally making the desert-rock album he’s hinted at since ZZ Top’s First Album’s Goin’ Down To Mexico. While he’s not straying too far from the mothership, nothing here is phoned-in. As befits the craftsman he’s always been, he’s taken the time and trouble to fashion a bunch of songs worthy of standing alongside anything in his catalogue. Hats off.