Lenny Kravitz was born in 1963, the first infant ever to leave a New York City hospital in dark shades and a leather diaper. Thirty-seven fizzy years later, the object of occasional press slams and frequent industry acclaim, a gossip column mainstay, and now the just slightly seasoned rock-dude toast of young America, there he stands on the cover of his Greatest Hits, a collection of this perfectionist’s most perfect work from 1989‘s Let Love Rule through 1998‘s 5. Lenny: a back-lit icon in flowing white shirt and intricately deconstructed distressed denim, glaring the kind of invulnerable look difficult to bring off without major pecs and abs. Beholding him as he hangs out in Manhattan in the video for the balladic “Again”—a circular yearner and the one new song on Greatest Hits—you wonder how slavishly someone had to shop Tokyo for those T-shirts.
Kravitz has run his whole career on the theory that Rod Stewart just never got the international rock star thing quite right. By the time he sullenly became a hot topic, with his apparently high-design championship of the past, his strategic respect for the hippie-formal, his willed gusto for the electric riff, he bugged people; grunge, after all, had left them very keen for authenticity. More than a decade later, Kravitz seems merely to have ushered in the ’90s—that still-continuing era when ideas about forward motion tend toward the conceptual, the altogether absent, or the extremely subtle. A time when, outside of hip-hop and DJ music, “the new” seems like a crusty ideal, obscure enough for, say, Queens of the Stone Age. Kravitz, for his part, chose to re-tweak amps and stage smoke and incense instead of cigars and martinis or ska or swing. For him, pumped-up rock with soulful slants was the thing. Totally.
Hooked, of course, to tunes. What Greatest Hits proves so conclusively is what’s always been clear, beyond the Hendrix and the Marley, the Gaultier and the Comme des Garçons: Kravitz can seriously put a track together; among rock producers of the last 10 years, he’s way up there. His stuff is the work of an earnest showbiz kid. He senses rock music as something that must be done with the professional planning and know-how, the tasteful expertise and mind for tradition, of a big-budget network-TV variety special. His music sounds directed, choreographed, costumed, cast.
But that’s only after you stop to consider how Kravitz’s most ridiculously spot-on tracks operate: Most times, you just bang your head. Take “Fly Away,” Kravitz’s ’98 smash that—along with his precisely sludgy recasting of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” for, crucially, the Austin Powers soundtrack—established him as the rootsy Max Martin, the sound of ancient rock and roll staring Britney World dead in the eye. “Fly Away” starts with barn-burning guitar riffs, gives way to sound-effecty guitar hiccups loopily stretched out, then brings on still more guitars that exaggerate and push the tune’s natural rhythmic momentum. It’s funky as shit, without even being bass-determined. On top, Kravitz sings about wanting to escape, to fly away; at the ends of his verses, he overdubs his own voice into thick harmonies that, like the accumulation of guitars, take the sonics even further in the same restless direction. It’s like when, on those old network specials, Bob Hope would introduce Ursula Andress, then Flip Wilson, then Tom Jones. In the recording studio, Kravitz knows how to keep raising that entertainment ante.
Greatest Hits lives off that kind of thing, usually in the language of ur-rock. “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” the spectacular hit that opens it, was always kind of eerie when it appeared during High Grunge Year ’93: this utterly calibrated piece of elegantly hard guitarism kicking with more panic than much of the Seattle stuff. Yet there’s no band, just Kravitz on guitars and drums and bitten-off vocals. “Believe,” from the same year, reverses the ratio of voice to guitar, letting the latter lie back and tremolo as Kravitz brings on orchestrations and echo. This wildly exoticizes his singing and playing of psychedelic melodies so masterfully resculpted from the Beatles and others that the piece ends up some kind of sublime executive summary. A similar thing happens in the earlier “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” Kravitz’s ’91 old-soul apotheosis. With its stinging syncopations, lush singing, and flighty strings, the tune isn’t really influenced by Motown; it is Motown, and Kravitz a one-man Marvelette. It’s the kind of soulful touch that pulls the strings behind his whole show.