Saturday, July 14, 2012

July 14: Lenny Kravitz, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?"

Artist: Lenny Kravitz
Album: Are You Gonna Go My Way
Year: 1993
Label: Virgin

Looking at the overall history of recorded music, one of the stranger reoccurring themes is when "modern" critics attempt to place a new title on a sound that has been around for decades.  For whatever reason, even when a new band is clearly playing a style of music that is not new, the critics of that day feel it necessary to hail them as pioneers and slap a new, hip name on the sound.  There was no more clear an example than when critics decided to invent the idea of "grunge music," when in reality, those albums were as punk rock as any from 1977.  During that same period (the early 1990's), there was an artist who had been around for a few years, and when he released a record in 1993, it was termed "retro," when there was no arguing that it was nothing more than a mind-blowingly refreshing rock and rock album.  Though his image may have implied otherwise, the spirit of rock and roll was revived with Lenny Kravitz's 1993 opus, Are You Gonna Go My Way.  Taking a far more aggressive path than his first two records, it was this album that almost instantly solidified Kravitz as one of the most elite musicians of the time, and his style and skill influenced an entire generation of musicians.  Shooting up the charts in more than a dozen countries, the album brought together everything he had done previously, then redefined the rock sound, and there are few records in history on par with Are You Gonna Go My Way.

The instant the song "Are You Gonna Go My Way" begins, it becomes an unforgettable track, as the blaring riff put forth by Kravtiz's guitar is nothing short of anthemic.  Yet it is not Kravtiz alone that makes the guitar work so memorable, as he has a second guitar being played by Craig Ross, and it is this combination that makes the sound so robust and crushing.  In retrospect, the riffs all across the album are powerful and memorable, and there's no question they are some of the defining riffs of the decade, perfectly capturing the upbeat energy that was present in the music of the first half of the 1990's.  This unrestrained "party" vibe that runs throughout many of the songs remains largely unparalleled to this day, as even in the somewhat experimental breakdown sections, there is a fantastic energy, which is why the songs still appear as "fresh" nearly twenty years after their initial release.  Alongside Lenny Kravitz is one of the finest rhythm sections of the decade, composed of bassist Tony Breit and drummer Cindy Blackman.  The drums are some of the most aggressively played of the era, and Blackman was, for a time, the "face" of "women who rock," and her signature afro made Kravtiz and his band one of the most unmistakable rock outfits on the planet.  The entire band moves as a single, stunning unit, and it is during the spaced-out breakdown section where the group injects the only signs of "retro" to be found, and yet they are clearly more psychedelic than anything else.  Regardless of the classification, few albums of the day rocked harder than Are You Gonna Go My Way.

Pushing the overall energy of the song even higher, Lenny Kravitz holds nothing back on his vocas, and the sheer delight and exhilaration in his voice remain as unmatched as the music over which he sings.  The fantastic swagger and power with which Kravtiz sings is nothing short of infectious, and if the music somehow failed to get the listener moving, his vocal work certainly does the trick every time.  Whether it is his strangely confident spoken breakdown sections or the unrestrained liveliness on the verses and chorus, or even the more somber, melodic tracks, few vocal performances are as truly enjoyable from start to finish as one finds from end to end on this album.  It is the fact that Kravitz can be as wild and unrestrained as he appears on some songs, yet pull it all back into a tight, beautiful sound like on "Believe" that quickly made him a star across the world, and yet taking all this into account, one can read several meanings behind the lyrics to many of the songs on the album.  From what appears to be commentary on racism to the fragile state of the world on many levels, to refusing to sell yourself short, Lenny Kravitz takes on a wide range of themes throughout Are You Gonna Go My Way, and it is this added diversity that serves as the ideal finishing touch to the album.

Strangely enough, behind all of Kravitz's devastating performances, he manages to give a nod to a number of his own influences all across Are You Gonna Go My Way.  Within "Are You Gonna Go My Way," one can easily hear remnants of Bo Diddley's take on "Not Fade Away," as well as directly borrowing the breakdown riff from The Kinks, "You Really Got Me."  Furthermore, upon digging deeper, the vocal pattern seems to have been taken from French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman's song, "Quand la Musique est Bonne."  Even taking this slight "biting" into account, clearly none of these other artists were able to blend the sounds together and inject them with the fury and happiness that one finds on every moment of Are You Gonna Go My Way, and it is this talent for bridging so many styles that makes Lenny Kravtiz such a dynamic artist.  Though often written off as "retro" or "neo-psychedelia," it is hard to argue that this album is anything other than pure, unrestrained rock and roll, and one can easily argue that these other titles were simply nothing more than music critics attempting to claim that something "new" was happening in the world of music.  From the unforgettable guitar riffs to the pummeling drums to the exuberant vocal work, to the softer beauty he creates, there are few records  that are as perfectly display the meaning of the word "musical perfection" as one will find in Lenny Kravitz's iconic 1993 album, Are You Gonna Go My Way.

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