Never mind the Darkness: For cornball, long-live-rock cheese, no one plays second fiddle — or wah-wah guitar — to Lenny Kravitz. Take Baptism, Kravitz’s seventh set of déjà view rock. In ”California,” he sings of moving to that state as a kid, getting stoned while listening to the Who and Led Zeppelin, and playing ”guitar in air.” (Yes, you read that right.) Without mentioning her by name, he celebrates his now deceased affair with Nicole Kidman by penning a song called ”Lady,” as if it were still 1974 and men were still using terms like that to describe their partners. The song’s chugging-locomotive riff is pretty vintage too. In ”Flash,” his strutting, Kiss-influenced homage to being on stage, he confesses, ”Because these moments don’t last/So tonight I will shake it and show my ass.”
Anyone else offering up such hokum would do it with tongue fairly deep in cheek. Not Lenny Kravitz. In his mind, he is a true believer, a rock & roll classicist. Certainly, he stands for many positive, respectable things: musicianship, songwriting, passion, the idea that it’s utterly natural for an African American to play arena rock. He’s the type who will write a tune about his role as a soul healer and call it ”Minister of Rock ‘N Roll” (but, oddly, set it to a sludgy techno backbeat).
If an element of humor or self-deprecation were evident, the results would be funny — a guilty-pleasure romp. But here’s the problem: Kravitz is completely and utterly straight-faced about every single aspect of what he does. This tendency overwhelms ”Baptism,” in which he aims to confront the demons that haunt him despite 15 successful years in the biz. Anyone else would realize that a song about the burden of celebrity should be delivered with a wink. Again, not Kravitz. To demonstrate the rigors of his lifestyle, he tells us — in ”I Don’t Want to Be a Star” — of partying with Dylan and Jagger and having ”too many clothes/too many shoes.” In another sulky price-of-fame number, ”The Other Side,” he earnestly rhymes ”millions sold” with ”left standing in the cold.” In both cases, he obliterates whatever slim chances he had of earning our sympathy.
As always, Kravitz sets his ruminations to what sound like lost FM hits of the ’70s. Sometimes the tunes have their charm (the boogying single ”Where Are We Runnin’?”), and sometimes not (the ballads continue his seeming fixation on rewriting ”Hey Jude” without getting sued by Paul McCartney). When Jay-Z swoops into the blaxploitation funk of ”Storm,” Kravitz is dragged into the present day. But even the best tracks feel thin and too low-tech. The bursting chorus of the Darkness’ ”I Believe in a Thing Called Love” leaves most of ”Baptism” in the dust. Of course, those Brits are a far jokier lot than Kravitz, who may be one of the last to believe rock & roll equals salvation. But rock & roll can’t always save him — from himself.