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For all his sparkle-topped Flying V posturing and flailing feather-boa sexifying during the "Are You Gonna Go My Way" era—admittedly, that song was the jam—Lenny Kravitz has spent most of the ensuing 15 years fully squandering his retro cool on the apparently lucrative returns of retread hell. As he moved shirtless and ankle-booted through the years, the interpretive promise and Innervisions production style of his first few albums gave way to warmed-over rock riffing (Circus), laughable cliché (5 and its inexplicable 1999 superhit "Fly Away") and the bizarre transmissions from the rubber room that populated 2004's Baptism. "What Did I Do With My Life?" he warbled on the latter album, and then reached for more Mars-raised sushi from a gilded serving tray. The dinner was prepared and served by an underling with features surgically altered to resemble Lenny's own. Of course, Lenny Kravitz can afford galactic fish and cosmetic surgeries for his staff-he's sold 20 million albums since 1991. He was whining about it on Baptism, but really, it's just the succulent harvest of another day in the life.
On Tuesday, Kravitz will release It Is Time for a Love Revolution, his eighth studio album. It features songs such as "Love Love Love," "Love Revolution" and "Bring It On," titles that indicate Kravitz has clearly put some deep, deep thought into his plea for a war of hugs and his material's usual recycled sound, that multitracked Choir of Lennys and plodding midtempos siphoned from '70s soul that are crackled up with formulaic two-note guitar lines. And somewhere, there are at least a million consumers who will buy into this shtick again, who will part with a bit of their hard-earned cash for a chit in the Cult of Lenny. Problem is, that's a group with only one full-time member, and he gets all the benefits. (Remember, galactic-raised fish.)
Once the sub-bar-band electric mumble of "Fly Away" started selling like it did, Kravitz must have realized he could switch his career to "coast" mode and still wear fabulous fur coats, introduce Hansel at the VH1 Fashion Awards, nap regularly on Jimi Hendrix's grave, collect Grammys in his sleep and perform concerts attended by the populations of entire continents. Because while he's a world-famous rock star who owns a herd of leather pants, he hasn't released a solid album since 1993. Lenny's gone meta and become the embodiment of his own persona. After friends create their Mii characters on his Nintendo Wii, he refashions them in his own image.
The problem with all this career superficiality and cultish narcissism is that it cheapens the central message of Kravitz's career and new album (as well as the utter obviousness of something like "Love Love Love"). We all want worldwide hugs and roses in gun barrels; we all agree that if love actually ruled, you wouldn't need to say it three times like a mantra and hope it comes true. But when the substance trying to support his sentiment is as shallow as Kravitz has been making it, it's tough to believe in his broad message of universalism. He probably is sincere, and that's admirable. But Kravitz could try to make a more sincere attempt at rocking while he's at it. That feather boa isn't going to flail itself.
And yet, despite Lenny's heavy-duty swindle of the worldwide record market, can he really be blamed for his retrograde indiscretions? What else would you do for a living if you were him? If you needed to make ends meet with a job in fast food, you'd be denied because your Flying V didn't fit in the drive-through operator's stall. What if you wanted to work in an office? No way: The wind machine specified in your tour rider would knock over all the cubicles. And so you'd trudge back to your octagonal home, turn on the hover shower and alert the waitstaff that you'll take your meal in the Jungle Room. Might as well get started writing another song . . . hmmm, how about love or guitars as a theme?
It Is Time for a Love Revolution comes out Tuesday on Virgin Records. For more information, visit www.lennykravitz.com.