Plenty of people dump on Lenny Kravitz, and who can blame them? On his name-the-influence first two albums, Let Love Rule and Mama Said, the man who had earlier sung under the name Romeo Blue became a sucker for ’60s nostalgia, a bit of a male chauvinist pig (to use a phrase from said era), a blatant rip-off artist, and a derivative dresser. And those were his good points.
The harping isn’t likely to end with Are You Gonna Go My Way. Aside from the fact that he continues to sport flared pants and open-to-the-waist shirts that make him look like a ’70s pickup artist from planet Rasta, his music still has that unsettling double-take quality. The title song, which kicks off the record, opens with a blast of phase-shifter electric guitar that could have been lifted directly off an old Jimi Hendrix or Isley Brothers album. And the lyrics are prime Kravitz. ”I was born long ago/I am the chosen/I’m the one,” he starts out, later singing actual lines like ”We’ve got to love and rub-a-dub/ We’ve got to dance and be in love.” Never mind Michael Jackson: Can you believe this guy?
Believe it. Kravitz will sing any nonsense that pops into his dreadlocked head, and he’ll weld those words onto whatever old-fangled style of pop that appeals to him, be it late-’60s blues rock or ’70s blaxploitation soul. He has absolutely no sense of shame, nor any qualms about being garish, obnoxious, and utterly self-absorbed. His music is a million kilometers removed from the tastefulness of an Unplugged special or the furrowed-brow musings of the Sting-Natalie Merchant school — and that’s what makes it truly inspired pop schlock.
In that regard, Are You Gonna Go My Way may be his finest moment yet. Kravitz still tips his hat to the past; the main guitar lick of ”My Love,” for instance, recalls the Beatles’ ”I’ve Got a Feeling.” But overall, he has pared down the gimmicky arrangements that spoiled Mama Said, replacing them with the scrappy, homemade feel of a pop obsessive banging around in his basement studio. The ballads are soft and fuzzy, while the rockers are as taut and simple as a stretched rubber band.
Nods to tastefulness aside, Kravitz remains his own blissfully self-centered man. Who else would write such a pile of give-in-to-me-baby-and-together-we’ll-save-the-world drivel for lyrics? Who else would sing ”I need God” as a method of foreplay in ”Come On and Love Me” (in which he also immodestly quotes from his own ”Let Love Rule”)? Who else would cop a suave, Al Green sound for ”Sugar” — all classy and uptown, complete with strings — and top it off with dopey love-man lyrics like ”Sugar, dance for me/Sugar, taste so sweet/Climb on and take the wheel”?
No one but Kravitz, of course. And that’s what’s so commendable, in a perverse sense, about a moronic guilty pleasure like Are You Gonna Go My Way. A fascinating chronicle of one man indulging himself in public, it finds our hero continuing his quest to go more than one toke over the line. B