The old fart’s cry — that youth is wasted on the young — gets a new twist in the hands of Lenny Kravitz, a sprout who reckons that history shouldn’t be left to its ghosts. Reaching back to the era that ended with Woodstock, the singing multi-instrumentalist borrows from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone in a dedicated attempt to re-create not just the sound of their records but the tenor of their times. The son of NBC producer Sy Kravitz and TV actress Roxie Roker, Kravitz grew up bi-coastal, learning drums, guitar and piano while developing his voice as a member of the California Boys Choir and the Metropolitan Opera (!). All that training went into making the self-produced and largely solo-played Let Love Rule. While the album has its guilty pleasures — the title track’s funky gristle and anthemic climax, for one-Kravitz’s false memories wear thin after repeated listens. Lowpoints are “Mr. Cab Driver” (an understandable but ungainly complaint about urban racism) and “I Built This Garden for Us,” a mawkish love ballad done up as baroque Paul McCartney psychedelia, complete with fat organ, “Eleanor Rigby” strings and a vintage-fuzzed guitar solo. The crazy quilt time-capsule album is an impressive achievement with a sometimes engaging soulful vibe, but the fashion-conscious Kravitz mainly succeeds in proving that image can be (nearly) everything.
Kravitz subsequently grew more sophisticated and R&B-geared in his appropriations, playing up his Prince-ly falsetto and cozy soul grooves. The no-less-retro-minded but less rococo Mama Said doesn’t pay as much slavish devotion to its sources, instead mixing various stops on the wayback organ to mildly original effect, limited mainly by the plainness of Kravitz’s songwriting. Even the dissolution of his marriage yields trite phrases that are more painfully outdated than his music. “There are so many rainbows that we were to climb…we’ve got to get our heads untangled and free our state of mind” (“The Difference Is Why”). Amid the album’s broadening, “Stop Draggin’ Around” is a pale Hendrix imitation and “All I Ever Wanted,” which Sean Ono Lennon co-wrote and plays piano on, is an homage to John Lennon which even includes Kravitz’s weak stab at primal screaming. “Stand by My Woman” also borrows Lennon’s signature echo-delayed vocals/piano signature for its verses, but shifts into lush harmony soul for the chorus. Slash co-wrote and plays guitar on “Always on the Run.” All told, Mama Said is a dull sidestep that neither builds on nor refutes the designs of the debut.
Kicking off with the exciting rock-funk sizzle of the Hendrixy “Are You Gonna Go My Way” (the has-to-be-intentional duff solo makes it clear this young turk knows his place in history), Kravitz’s third album strikes a truly productive balance between style and substance. While he’s still appropriating Beatlisms, making like Prince, aping Led Zeppelin and touching other obvious reference points, Kravitz adds more than enough of himself — a diehard romantic with a split lip and a busted heart — in the Zeppy “Is There Any Love in Your Heart,” the soulful ballad “Black Girl” and the discofied “Sugar” to sublimate the stylistic kleptomania. In the touching acoustic “Sister,” Kravitz gives himself a good talking to on behalf of the woman who has left him: “Sister/Did you have to fall in love/With a man/That never was/Up to no good/He took your soul/And he stole your only heart/Flipped your wig and left a permanent scar.” As never before, such earnestness and devotion sound sincere rather than just part of the disguise, and it’s hard not to be drawn in to the unguarded persona pulling off all these musical parlor tricks.
Though the title of Circus‘ curtain-raiser — “Rock and Roll Is Dead” — might indicate some epiphany in Kravitz’s creative outlook, the song is simply the first of three sequential vehicles for his utterly pointless tribute to Led Zeppelin. (If it’s dead, rock’n’roll’s ancient spirit seems to have found a willing corpse to inhabit.) Worse, the lyrics switch at the end from a dig at hollow stardom to a plea for icon understanding, which makes the reborn rocker seem equally lost in place and time. Despite the funk bump of “Tunnel Vision,” the generic balladry of “Can’t You Get Off My Mind” and the Prince-styling old-school affectations of “Don’t Go and Put a Bullet in Your Head,” Circus is Kravitz’s most rocking record and, with only occasional assists on guitar, bass and keyboards, also his simplest and most direct. If he were a compelling songwriter, such an unguarded approach might be beneficial, but it turns out that Lenny is only as good as his window dressing.