Fifteen years ago, Lenny Kravitz was both an anomaly and a breath of fresh air. A gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, he had the goods to deliver his classic rock leanings. Some may have decried his work as derivative, but few young artists were delivering the sort of stellar stuff that he offered on his first three albums — Let Love Rule (1989), Mama Said (1991), and Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993).
The last decade has not been as kind to Kravitz. While there have been some triumphs and moments in the sun, such as his cover of The Guess Who’s American Woman on the soundtrack to the 1999 movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, his recent albums have tended to lack focus and fire.
Now, at age 40, Kravitz is back. The aptly named album Baptism harkens back to his early days. Producing the disc and playing most of the instruments himself, Kravitz has returned to basic rock — the thing that he does best. Of course, that means displaying his adeptness with hard rock, soul, funk, and classic balladry.
It also means a comfort level with lots of self-disclosure and spiritual reflection.
After all, Kravitz has always been one to wear his heart on his sleeve. It can be a bit overdone and self-indulgent, such as the self-endorsement Minister Of Rock ‘N Roll. However, this hooky toggle on a single chord aptly does show Kravitz’s honest blend of the sacred and the profane.
On his new album, Kravitz again displays an affinity for many cousins of classic rock, and even dabbles in a few distant relatives. For every thumpy popper (I Don’t Want To Be A Star) and thrash rocker ( California ), there are forays into meaty funk (Sistermamalover) and rap (Storm).
Even more effective and clearly authentic are a trilogy of deeply spiritual and reflective songs — the anthem Where Are We Runnin’?, the piano ballad What Did I Do With My Life?, and the album’s climax penultimate track The Other Side. On these songs, the man who was once married to actress Lisa Bonet and is now a father who sees his children occasionally looks at his world and his life with honesty. He avoids wallowing in self-pity, and his faith is his hope.
Also of note is the title cut Baptism. It leaves the subject of his love judiciously obtuse — his earthly love, his heavenly God, or both — and it serves as a statement that will fascinate his longtime fans and resonate with many of them.
Of course, there are those who will find these songs overdone lyrically as well as melodically, just as they find Kravitz on the whole overdone. However, this is a huge comeback album for fans of Kravitz and new expressions of classic rock in general. In short, the time is ripe for a Lenny Kravitz comeback album, and Baptism is just that. Wilfred Langmaid is student advocate and lecturer in biology at the University of New Brunswick, and a priest in the diocese of Fredericton. He regularly writes on popular music and religion for the Daily Gleaner and has been a music and popular culture columnist with Anglican Journal since 1993.