[21 November 2013]
It wasn’t until 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way that Lenny Kravitz released an entire album where he sounded more like himself and less like anyone else. For its 20th anniversary, the album has been lovingly remastered, and the vaults have been opened for demos, outtakes, acoustic versions, and collected b-sides. This is both a wonderful and horrible thing. What was once his tightest and most consistent record is now instead a document of an era; though there are some interesting curios, the sheer weight of ephemera weighs the album down and nearly drowns it.
The second disc is where all this unreleased material is found, as well as several acoustic versions of album tracks that were perfect filler for the era of CD maxi-singles. The acoustic tracks are merely a man and his guitar playing pensive, heartfelt songs in hotel rooms. Nothing is gained and too much is lost. As far as outtakes and demos, hearing Kravitz lay down guide vocals on a few tracks for the 1992 album he produced by Vanessa Paradis is fun, but unless you’re Trio, “Da Da Da” doesn’t lodge a song in the memory. The unfinished “Feeling Alright” has a solid riff but there isn’t a hook, and it’s easy to understand why it went no further. There are two decent songs that buck the trend of irrelevancy: “Getting Out (Will You Marry Me)”, a tight funk workout; and “Blood/Papa (A Long and Sad Goodbye)”, an epic that indulges his Led Zeppelin fetish. Kravitz also felt there was something more in those two, as he reworked the demos into new songs (those new titles are appended here in the parenthetical) for his 2008 album It’s Time For a Love Revolution.
The ghost of Led Zeppelin appears now and then on the actual album, but its presence is strongest on these demos and b-sides. The non-album single/Reality Bites soundtrack cut “Spinning Around Over You” has such a characteristically Jimmy Page riff, it’s surprising he didn’t sue for royalties. Maybe the irony of it might have been too much even for him. Not all of this can be laid on Kravitz’ door, as guitarist Craig Ross certainly added his own Page-isms to the mix. On b-side “Someone Like You”, Kravitz, Ross, and company use a guitar tone straight out of Page’s book to pay homage to the Beatles, with a huge dollop of “She Said She Said”, Lennonesque vocal doubling, and a dash of the “I got blisters on my fingers” echoed background voicing from “Helter Skelter”. It works because the sources are so strong, not because the resulting song is a masterpiece on its own.
But there are small masterpieces on the original album, and the stellar remastering brings them into even sharper focus. “Sugar” is a glorious seventies-style soul song, with a fine rising horn line and a gorgeous string arrangement that supports the song without overwhelming it. There’s plenty of Curtis Mayfield and smooth Motown in the mix, but it isn’t a rip-off; it’s Lenny Kravitz finding himself within the context of his idols. This is the step that many wondered if Kravitz would—or could—ever take.
On Are You Gonna Go My Way, those steps happened again and again. Listen to the organ work and arrangements by Henry Hirsch and Kravitz on “Believe”; they’re straight out of the John Paul Jones handbook, but Led Zeppelin never went for that sort of deep soul. Same with that Jimmy Page guitar from Craig Ross on “Is There Any Love in Your Heart”—those ultra-talented Brits could play funk, but the meld here is Kravitz’s own kind of nasty beast. The debt to John Lennon on a song like “My Love” is a little different, as the vocal tricks, doubling, and range make it harder to hear that the mix of blues rock and Beatlesque harmonies Lenny Kravitz crafts is one of his own.
This was not a perfect album in 1993, and its problems remain the same 20 years later. There are still some songs that feel half-baked if beautifully played and recorded; “Eleutheria”, for instance, has one of the strongest vocal performances on any of his records, but the limp reggae backing track is a nightmare. Even the sublime organ from Michael “Ibo” Cooper of genre stalwarts Third World can’t rescue it from Maxi Priest b-side territory. To close the record with it was criminal.
Kravitz may not have sequenced Are You Gonna Go My Way in a way that did it any favors, but he did know what to cast aside. This new deluxe edition proves that in spades. In the process, it also comes perilously close to overwhelming the album and the great strides Kravitz had made in finding his voice.