[20 July 2009]
I prize innovation far less than most music critics. Though those who push boundaries are to be admired, newness in and of itself has very little to do with quality. In these very pages I have recently praised both Ian Tyson and the Black Crowes for albums that simply execute generic tropes very well, offering nothing new. Novelty is by definition transient. A good album sounds good today, and it’ll sound good in 20 years.
So why do I hate Lenny Kravitz so much? This is the question I pondered as I listened to the 20th anniversary reissue of his debut album, Let Love Rule. Time should be kind to an inveterate appropriator like Kravitz. Pop history has a way of blurring in the rearview mirror—what came first, and who was influenced by whom, seem to matter less and less. Time often reclaims groups that once seemed shallow and fleeting—it seems almost hard to believe that in their day the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, the Bee Gees, and Burt Bacharach were widely considered disposable. Kravitz is a tremendously skilled instrumentalist and an expert showman—he seems like the kind of guy who’s ripe for a critical reappraisal. So why, with each passing year, does his music sound more plastic, inert, and—to use a word that invites accusations of rockism—phony?
His virtuosic musicianship might be part of the problem. Kravitz is a one-man band and a notorious control freak, rarely allowing other musicians to appear on his albums. Listen to his bluesy piano trills on “My Precious Love”, or his jittery drums on “Flower Child”—the dude can flat-out play. (“Flower Child”, I should note, is actually quite a good song.) He’s a particularly terrific bassist, building his Prince-lite grooves from the ground up. (He may have missed his true calling to be a bad-ass bassist for a dirty funk band, instead of a eclectic superstar auteur.) But for all the monstrous talent on display, his songs feel inorganic, constructed from a blueprint instead of emerging organically. Where Prince is raw and slithering, Kravitz is calculated, clean, and precise. If good artists borrow and great artists steal, Kravitz rents by the hour.
And then there are the lyrics. Oh God, the lyrics. The titular “Let Love Rule”, the single that launched Kravitz’s tremendously successful career, informs us that “Love is gentle as a rose, and love can conquer anyone. It’s time to take a stand—brothers and sisters join hands. We’ve got to let love rule!” It’s almost always unflattering to quote song lyrics out of context, but man, it just goes on and on. Six minutes of this tripe? Are you serious, Lenny Kravitz? He just takes John Lennon’s soggiest epigrams and multiplies them exponentially, with none of the counterbalancing effect of Lennon’s brutal, bloody-sleeved honesty. Twenty years into his career, and it’s the only thing Kravitz has ever sung about: Love is good. We should love. More love, please. He seems to believe that this is some kind of radical sentiment. (His last album was the clunkily titled It Is Time For a Love Revolution.)
This reissue is a quickie money-maker, without particularly interesting bonus features or new songs. The second disc features a live performance of ten of the album’s 13 songs, slavishly faithful to the original recordings aside from a few long sessions of jammy noodling. The six extra tracks on the first disc consist of random demos and rough mixes of songs that appeared in better versions on the album proper—do we really need four versions of the interminable “Let Love Rule”, including one that’s 11 minutes long?—as well as a horrifying castrated version of Lennon’s vicious and truthful “Cold Turkey”. Where Lennon sings “Cold turkey has got me on the run”, Kravitz amends it to “Cold turkey has got me on the fucking run”. And that’s Kravitz in a nutshell—his vision of transcendence is mewling about love, and his vision of edge is dropping an F-bomb.