The most personal record in Kennedy’s nearly 30-year career.
Myles Kennedy can’t help but rock out. His entire life as a musician has been about reaching the cheap seats with soaring choruses, guitar god theatrics and howling frontman histrionics. And he’s really fucking good at it. Yet for the most personal record in his nearly 30-year career, he’s traded the electric guitar for an acoustic—and analog tape. Year of the Tiger, his solo debut, is an album written as a way to work through the feelings over his father’s death in 1974 (hence the album’s title) when Kennedy was just four years old.
While Year is ostensibly a bare-it-all singer-songwriter album, it instead comes off as an episode of “MTV Unplugged.” Several of the songs are structured as if they were written with a full electric band in mind and then pared down. The choruses of “The Great Beyond” and “Devil on the Wall,” for example, fly as high as anything he’s recorded. Similarly, the grandiose swell of “One Find Day” and “Blind Faith” makes it hard to imagine they originated in someone’s bedroom. Kennedy can’t help but swing for the nosebleeds, and it makes you wonder, then, if the decision to write and record Year of the Tiger this way was earnest or not.
Given the songwriting, that’s an unfortunate distraction. While the mostly boilerplate acoustic rock fare doesn’t offer much room for surprises or innovation, Kennedy smartly counters with strong melodies, throwing in mandolin, banjo and lap steel as accents throughout. The slide guitar in “Haunted by Design” adds to the song’s theme by acting as a specter in the background, while the lead guitar in the fun country rocker “Devil on the Wall” is one of the few times he allots himself space to show off as a musician. Notably, Kennedy played many of the instruments himself, using only outside help for the rhythm section comprised of bassist Tim Tournier and drummer Zia Uddin.
One of the album’s most obvious influences is the lighter side of Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant used Jimmy Page’s acoustic strumming and John Paul Jones’ mandolin to express some of his most personal ideas, and Kennedy has followed suit here—perhaps a little too closely at times. To wit, if the anxious mandolin in the title track and “Love Can Only Heal” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially lifted from Zep’s “The Battle of Evermore.” Heavy borrowing aside, the former, which opens the album, has a radio-friendly hook and immediately sets the tone using his mother’s perspective: “The only love I’ve known has slipped away/ The only love I’ve known has gone away.”
But the real meat of the record is Kennedy’s anger. On “Blind Faith,” he directs it at what he sees is the root cause of his father’s death: his family’s strict adherence to their Christian Science faith. Over a turbulent acoustic guitar, Kennedy pairs respectful acknowledgment of his father’s beliefs with bitter resentment towards his decision not to seek medical treatment because of them: “I know you’re steadfast in your ways/ Never compromise your faith/ But is it worth it in the end/ To never see my face again?.” This sentiment is echoed more directly on the sour “Nothing but a Name”: “Your conviction, your belief/ How could you choose that over me?,” Kennedy vents, before conceding the true source of his pain: “Goddamn, I miss you now.”
Thankfully, not all of Year of the Tiger is antagonistic; in fact, four of the final five tracks are uplifting. “Mother,” like the title track, finds Kennedy taking on the matriarchal perspective to explore perseverance in the face of tragedy: “Mother never bows to fate/ Grieving for what can’t be changed/ We discover in due time/ How much we’re meant to take”. Later, he inserts himself into the song to admit the debt he owes her: “When all hope was left to die/ Your love for me survived.” It’s easily the most touching track of the collection. Kennedy uses the final trio of songs to speak about the power of love (“Love Can Only Heal”), overcoming pain from within (“Songbird”) and the old adage that time heals all wounds (“One Fine Day”). None of it is particularly revelatory, but the capable songwriting, hopeful tone and Kennedy’s vocals more than make up for it.
By his own admission, Year of the Tiger was difficult for Kennedy to make. The open-wound bloodletting makes that thoroughly clear. Even the makeshift salve of the inspiring material can’t fully mask the long-felt ache of losing his father to a religious belief. But perhaps in the act of making this record, those wounds can finally become scars.