Music

Why Lenny Kravitz Is Good In Spite Of Being Mostly Bad

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On Friday, Lenny Kravitz released Raise Vibration, his eleventh album. You’re forgiven if you didn’t notice. As the review in Rolling Stone declared, “Lenny Kravitz lends his voice to the resistance” on Raise Vibration, which is a nice way of saying, Please, for the love of god, ignore this album. On the record’s most overt political anthem, the earnest piano ballad “Here To Love,” Lenny opines that “with peace in sight no walls could separate us / we would be as one because this earth’s our home.” If that reads as mawkish in print, imagine what it sounds like — exactly like a non-satirical version of Aldous Snow, that’s what.

Nevertheless, I eagerly sought out Raise Vibration because I wanted to confirm an idea that I’ve long had about Lenny Kravitz’s career. It’s called the “Three Beats 80” theory and it goes like this:

Lenny Kravitz has three great songs: “Always On The Run,” “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” I could listen to those tracks all day long. They are perfect ear candy — unrepentantly retro rock and soul that stops just short of being blatantly derivative of any specific song or artist. In each instance, Kravitz was able to create a fully realized homage to the greatest classic-rock station in the world, co-mingling the power of Zeppelin and Hendrix with the velvety swing of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

Lenny Kravitz also has 80 bad songs. “Fly Away” might be the worst song ever written. (“I wish that I could fly / Into the sky / So very high / Just like a dragonfly.” So, you want to fly… like a dragonfly? GTFO.) And his interminable, bombastic cover of “American Woman” almost certainly had a special place of honor on the jukebox at Abu Ghraib. I could go on for (at least) another 78 tracks, but you get the idea.

However, in defiance of simple math, I generally like Lenny Kravitz because of those three great songs. For whatever reason, I care about those tunes more than the mountain of garbage Lenny has also created. In this specific instance, three beats 80.

As a half-black, half-Jewish funky hard-rocker, Lenny is a true musical unicorn. In the ’90s, he was the rare platinum-selling hitmaker from the rock world who couldn’t be easily classified as an alternative, punk, or metal act. During the grunge era, it was hard to tell whether Lenny was 20 years too late or 20 years too early — an old-world rock star who was fashion-model handsome and preoccupied with making hippie-style pronouncements, Lenny Kravitz was the opposite of angsty. Instead, he preached about how love should rule the world, like the Mussolini of peace. And while Curtis Mayfield and Prince were also obvious influences, he didn’t really slot as an R&B artist, either. He was just… Lenny Kravitz. He found his lane in the late ’80s and nobody has really joined him there ever since.

But his ability to make those three great songs count more than his scores of terrible tunes is what makes Lenny Kravitz truly unique. I’ve been trying to think of another legacy artist or band that has accumulated a similarly lopsided ratio and I’ve come up empty. Trust me, I have a profound weakness for trashy, disreputable rock music, but there aren’t many (or any) other “Three Beats 80” artists. There are one-hit wonders who don’t have Lenny’s longevity (or two other great songs), and there are acts who are merely bad without ever rising to the level of acceptability, in spite of a few guilty pleasures. But none of them have that one-of-a-kind mix of bad taste and decades-spanning, durable hits that Lenny has. His legacy is surprisingly wide and treacherously shallow.

I should point out that Lenny Kravitz actually has more than 80 bad songs. I know this because I’ve checked in periodically with his latest work over the past three decades. For instance, in 2008 Lenny released It’s Time For A Revolution, an excellent Lenny Kravitz album title for a supremely mediocre Lenny Kravitz album, which includes the memorably dumb “I Love The Rain.” (“I love the rain / I love the rain / I love / I love / I love the rain.”)

There are 13 other tracks on Revolution, and none of them are even that good. Extrapolate that over an 11-album career, and it’s clear that Lenny, in fact, has well over 100 bum tunes. But let’s not pile on. Branding the theory as “Three Beats 80” effectively gets the point across.

What accounts for this dramatic — and yet oddly inconsequential — disparity in quality in Lenny Kravitz’s catalog? For starters, it’s worth noting how nearly every Lenny song starts off with the potential to join the illustrious three. For about 10 seconds, any Lenny Kravitz song sounds amazing. And then, nearly every single time except three times, the riff or the melody or Lenny’s lyrical truisms become tiresome with extreme quickness.

Musically, Lenny Kravitz climaxes far too early. “Let Love Rule” starts off well but drones on for nearly six minutes, which is about five minutes and 30 seconds too long. “Can’t Get You Off My Mind” grabs you early, gets boring, picks up for a mildly compelling bridge, and then limps to the end. Even “Fly Away” is exciting when that guitar lick first hits before falling off a sharp cliff once Lenny opens his mouth. The anti-racism commentary “Mr. Cab Driver” is the rare Lenny song in which the lyrics are more interesting than the music, but it still sounds pretty flat after the requisite 10-second high. (An exception to the rule is “Believe,” which is pretty dull until the end, when Lenny rips a majestic solo. But a fourth-quarter comeback that fails to recover the lead still registers as an L.)

In various interviews over the years, Kravitz has talked about how songs will often come to him in dreams. In a recent Rolling Stone interview promoting Raise Vibration, he claims that “I dreamt the whole record.” I wonder if this explains his tendency to write songs that peak after 10 seconds — in a dream, 10 seconds can feel like an hour. Unfortunately, it’s only good for 10 seconds worth of music when you’re awake.

And yet the “Three Beats 80” theory ensures that I will continue to pay attention to new Lenny Kravitz albums, because I want to know if he can sustain one of the most astonishing streaks in modern popular music. For a moment while listening to Raise Vibration, I almost wondered whether I would have to rename it “Four Beats 80.” The standout number “Johnny Cash” starts off this bizarre whoosh that sounds like a harmonica being run through a wah-wah pedal, before settling into a plush, spongy groove that splits the difference between There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Dark Side Of The Moon. But then the rush inevitably crashes — “I cried like Johnny Cash when I lost my mother,” Lenny sings, “whisper in my ear / like June Carter.” Holy crap, that’s bad, but not bad enough to destabilize the big three. He’s still got it, baby.

Raise Vibration is out now Roxie Records. Buy it here.

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