Because I stopped reading Guitar World in seventh grade, I didn’t hear Greta Van Fleet’s music until their now-notorious 2019 SNL performance. Honestly, it was hard to focus on the music with so much happening on screen. My first thought was: They look like they raided the wardrobe from a ninth-grade production of Hair. My second thought was: This sounds like walking into Sam Ash. Third: This guy looks like Frodo. Fourth: This guy needs to stop doing that with the mic. Fifth: This guy is Frodo.
I’m being a snob, the kind of snob that the band and their many devoted fans expect to tear apart their latest album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate. The kind they believe will never give it a chance because he can’t possibly move beyond the oh-so-tired Led Zeppelin comparison. But, listen, I tried. Sincerely. I thought there was a possibility that the young band would grow up a bit and maybe surprise the naysayers with something interesting, that maybe they were determined to avoid claiming the throne as Gen Z’s Nickelback.
This is not what I had in mind. While The Battle at Garden’s Gate is definitely more ambitious, clocking in at over an hour and featuring elaborate string arrangements, this is still the same dumb, derivative band. If that sounds harsh, I ask you to spend a few minutes with lead single “My Way, Soon”, which sounds like Boston’s “Rock and Roll Band” if Apple’s predictive text rewrote the lyrics. “I’ve seen many people / There are so many people / Some are much younger people / And some are so old.”
“It’s very dynamic, lyrically speaking,” singer Josh Kiszka said of the song. “And that’s the human experience. It’s much more than pain or fear; it’s also beauty. People need people, and love is important.”
“Relax,” you say, “they’re young kids playing rock music. Is ‘Black Dog’ any smarter?” And, of course, I’d have to say “no.” “And what do you care, anyway, Kevin? They’re having fun.” And I guess I don’t care, not really, but after you spend a few hours with The Battle at Garden’s Gate you, too, might start to get the sense that this is an elaborate test. If you read its obnoxious press materials (including the stats for all of their social accounts, as well as a “Brand Guide”), you’d be almost certain you’re being trolled.
Clearly, they want me to point out that the opening of “Built By Nations” is, essentially, “The Ocean”. They want to see if I’ll take the bait on Kiszka’s ridiculous, Jack Black-esque vocal trill on the otherwise fine “Heat Above”. They want me to point out that the symphonic “Broken Bells” and nine-minute (!) album closer “The Weight of Dreams” sound like they were recorded specifically for divorced dads in man-caves. There’s simply no other way to justify the fact that these 63 minutes of butt-rock are offered with zero self-awareness or irony. The only other reasonable explanation is that the band really believe what they’re doing is something that deserves to be taken seriously. I honestly can’t say which one seems more plausible.
It’s not offensive that Greta Van Fleet wear their influence on the sleeves of their caftans. I don’t know anyone ignorant enough to suggest that any rock music released in 2021 is truly “original” or “authentic”, whatever those words mean at this point. Most artists, though, recognize the necessity to steal creatively, combining unlikely influences to make something close to novel. Greta Van Fleet, though, seem to lack even a passing familiarity with the last four decades of recorded music. Despite all the talk of artistic growth, the band have really only moved on from I to IV.