If, at any point during the recent crisis, you found yourself thinking, ‘What would Billy Gibbons do?’ – and there are probably worse role models – you might have pictured the ZZ Top frontman lighting out for some cactus-pocked desert redoubt in one of his garageful of hot rods. A scarlet coupe, perhaps, flames painted along the bonnet, packed with some of Gibbons’ legendarily vast guitar collection, and sufficient provisions to ride out lockdown.
- ORDER NOW: The August 2021 issue of Uncut
You wouldn’t have been too far wrong. Hardware was recorded in the rocky mesas of California’s Mojave, Gibbons teaming up with drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, The Cult) and guitarist Austin Hanks; Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe contribute backing vocals. The single West Coast Junkie (“I’m a West Coast junkie from a Texas town/And when I get to Cali it’s going down”) serves, in this context, as a Southern surf-rock mission statement, Gibbons channelling Dick Dale over a pulsing go-go beat, the drums quoting The Surfari’s Wipeout before the guitar solo.
Gibbons’ two previous solo albums have been obvious departures from ZZ Top. 2015’s Perfectamundo was a joyous excursion into Latin-rhythmed rock, and 2018’s Big Bad Blues was what its title said it was. But Hardware, whether part of some planned cycle or not, is Gibbons going back to where he came in: were it presented to a focus group of ardent ZZ Top fans as a new ZZ Top album, it would be surprising if anyone spotted the imposture.
Certainly, there is little chance of mistaking Billy Gibbons’ guitar: that smooth swagger along the frontier between the blues and Southern rock (the latter genre being one that Gibbons can claim to have helped invent). The first notes on Hardware are the opening riff of My Lucky Card, a characteristic Gibbons motif: an insistent guitar fusillade with which you can hear him placating some rumbustious early 1970s Texas honky-tonk as the empties start hitting the chicken wire.
There are, thereafter, few subtleties. Musically, Hardware is substantially comprised of barely reconstructed boogie. Lyrically, it is almost exclusively concerned with women, whiskey, cars, highways and so forth. Given, however, that this a palette Gibbons did more to define than most, and still draws from more deftly than many, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, still less so given that Gibbons’ 72-year-old fingers have lost none of their way around a fretboard. So while Shuffle, Step & Slide, for example, sounds exactly how a song called Shuffle, Step & Slide by Billy Gibbons might be expected to sound, its glorious solos are another entry in Gibbons’ hefty catalogue of elegant illustrations of the overlap between blues and Southern rock.
The ZZ Top period that Hardware most recalls is the one spanning 1981’s El Loco, 1983’s umpty-selling Eliminator and 1985’s Afterburner, as the group added synthesisers and sequencers to their primal rock trio setup. While Hardware doesn’t venture nearly as far into full-fledged Southern rock disco as some of the aforementioned, there are many instinctive or deliberate tips of the ten-gallon to this period – Larkin Poe’s glossy backing vocals on Stackin’ Bones, the turbocharged production of S-G-L-M-B-B-R, the distorted lead vocal on More-More-More, also punctuated with a growled Yeaaaahhh, which sounds copy/pasted from Sharp Dressed Man.
There are one or two more obviously outré moments, of the kind Gibbons might not have felt able to indulge under the ZZ Top marque. Vagabond Man is a sweet electric piano-drenched ballad, like Steve Miller fronting Drive-By Truckers. Spanish Fly is a gruff rap over clattering percussion and sparse, squealing guitar. Closer Desert High is more minimalist still, a sombre spoken-word narration of the view across the Mojave and what it conjures, in this instance the spectres of Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons.
Overall, the songs on Hardware fly in direct proportion to the degree to which they can be imagined being played on a fur-trimmed guitar mounted on a spindle. I Was A Highway is one such, underpinning the unsubtle metaphor (“You’d think I was a highway/The way she hit the road”) with a climactic post-guitar solo gear change from effortless cruise control to foot-down roar towards the horizon. She’s On Fire is another, a glorious headlong tear-up which could have graced any ZZ Top album of this last half-century or so. For all Gibbons’ often intriguing meandering from his usual path, on Hardware and elsewhere in his solo career, there remains little doubt about what he does best.