I get why people like Lenny Kravitz. I think there was probably a time in my life when I could have quite liked Lenny Kravitz. (And maybe, for a while, I sort of did.) And maybe, had I not become the music history obsessive that I am, I would like him to this day. But that’s not what happened.
Lenny Kravitz is phenomenally talented. He can write songs – at least a lot of compelling melodies and the odd riff, and his lyrics are passable and sometimes better than that. And, famously, he plays most of the instruments on these early records. He’s a pretty great singer. He’s the producer, he arranges everything (of course) and he even claims credit or co-credit for the string and horn arrangements. (Did he write them or hum them? Either way, yet more evidence of talent.) There’s no denying he is talented.
I just re-read my review of Are You Gonna Go My Way, the Kravitz album that I sort of grew up with. I wrote it three years ago but I don’t disagree with it at all. I was more familiar with that record, because I was 11 when it came out (9 when this one came out) and because my friend bought it. But my feelings aren’t much different with this.
The reason why Kravitz was so commercially successful compared to the other classic rock revivalists of his era – say, Canada’s Tea Party – is because he is a good songwriter. If you take away the songs, you have a guy who might have wallowed in obscurity or had to end up as a session musician known only to music obsessives.
And that’s because this music he’s making in 1990 or 1991 is utterly out of step with the time – it sounds virtually nothing like the rock or R&B of the era, except when he is at his most Prince-like. (And that doesn’t happen on this record all that much.) Instead, he is slavishly devoted to the music of the early ’70s (and the late ’60s to some extent). This music sounds better than a lot of that stuff because production values had improved massively in the intervening years and because Kravitz is incredibly talented. But it’s still nostalgia. Effective nostalgia but basically pure nostalgia.
And though my attitude towards nostalgia is softening the older I get (and fortunately or not) I still don’t really like it. Especially when it’s nostalgia for a time when I was not alive. Now, once I grew out of my oldies phase, I went into a classic rock phase, and so I very much listened to so much of what has inspired Kravtiz on this record and throughout his career.
But when I’m listening to 1991 albums, as I am doing this year, I’m not looking for something that sounds like a far-better-produced, rockier, less funky (and, frankly, cooler) Stevie Wonder record. I want some punk in my life. I want edge. I want some strangeness. I want some sense of the zeitgeist, even a little. But Kravitz is far more interested in the past, a very pretty sounding past, but still the past.