Red Hot Chili Peppers have returned with a double album, and legendary guitarist John Frusciante is back in the band – so why am I nervous?
It might seem odd to many people, but being able to write about a new Red Hot Chili Peppers album featuring off-again-on-again guitarist John Frusciante is a big deal to me. I’ve written before about my relationship with the band, their music and Frusciante himself, as well as my ongoing frustrations with all of the above. But despite the ups and downs, the arrival of new music from this specific four-piece will always carry a weight of nervous excitement for me. I can’t help it.
The reason I’m probably so cautious when it comes to talking about Red Hot Chili Peppers though is that, I’m all too aware they aren’t really a band that need to be talked about. There’s no doubt they have a dedicated group of die-hard fans, but over the years they’ve also attained a level of mass appeal that few others can boast. Having made the fractious transition from dirty, anarchic funk rock into smooth, radio-friendly Cali-pop grooves, the Chilis have managed addiction, break-ups, musical missteps and a revolving door policy on guitarists, to be in a place where they seem to effortlessly churn out critic-proof, inoffensive, stadium rock earworms. Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t need be analysed, they just need to provide a safe soundtrack to your next barbecue.
When I discovered Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the early 90s though, there was something cool and irresistible about them. The music was everything I wanted out of a band, and through the 60-minute documentary film Funky Monks (1991), I got know “the egotistical, provocative lead singer. The wacky, passionate bassist. The aloof, fun-loving drummer. And the prodigious, space cadet guitarist.” I followed every move they made, anxiously awaiting every sliver of news about new tours and releases. When John left in 1992 it was devastating, but I kept track of what he was up to and prayed someday he’d return. Frusciante’s solo work during that period wasn’t always an easy listen, but when he did come back six years later it marked a whole new creative era. As well as powering the four-piece back to form with Californication (1999), John started putting out incredible solo music. The Chilis were getting bigger, but John was getting better – making his second departure after the bloated mess of Stadium Arcadium (2006) less a disappointment and more an inevitability. And here we are now, 16 years later. John is in the band again and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are back with Unlimited Love… ‘unlimited’ that is, unless you’re Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist unceremoniously dumped to make way for the return of our hero.
That might sound flippant, but it does illustrate my feelings approaching Unlimited Love. There’s no doubt John is the better guitarist, there’s no doubt his working relationship with the band is something that can be very special. But, the way Klinghoffer was dispatched felt dirty… like a new love had been kicked to the kerb for some old flame who suddenly decided they missed what they had. And this fed only part of my overall cynicism about this latest reunion. Look at those weird tour announcement clips from late last year, with Flea, Chad and Anthony acting like 15-year-olds students doing an Anchorman (2004) swede in film class. John barely makes an appearance and when he does, seems embarrassed to even be there, like it was written into his contract that he had to help reboot the goofy Red Hot Chili Peppers brand that had lost its lustre during the Klinghoffer years. Is this what ‘Unlimited Love’ looks like? Or does his arrival back in the band have more to do with the ‘unlimited funds’ he can put back into his brilliant-but-far-less-pofitable solo work after a couple of double albums and a global stadium tour? Anthony and Flea will be 60 next year, would it be unreasonable to assume they’re reaching the point where bouncing around on stage like lunatics is making their knees ache? One last job Johnny? The big retirement score?
So it’s fair to say I went into Unlimited Love tentatively, yet with enough Stockholm Syndrome to pre-order a copy months in advance along with a t-shirt and tickets for the Manchester gig in Summer (I know… this fucking band, I can’t shake them). When the album arrived though, I sat on it for a couple of days. Maybe I was worried it would be terrible, maybe I was worried it would be good, but the main reason was I felt like I really needed to give it my full attention. Last Sunday night that opportunity came around. Everyone was in bed, so I cracked open a beer and popped on my headphones. These are the notes I made, song-by song, complete with an initial rating out of 10:
Opens with the single (whatever that means these days). Chad’s doing a slightly pacier version of the same rolling drums from Californication. But even more familiar are those warm harmonic guitars being pushed along by Flea’s bass groove. That weird sea shanty accent Keidis is doing still bugs the shit out of me… but I’ll admit this song has grown on me a bit. 7/10
Here Ever After
A promising start from the first track proper, with firm driving bass and a ringing Joy Division guitar. Keidis is still dropping odd vocal affectations, but it’s a catchy chorus lyric so I can live with it. Most notable thing here is Rubin seems to have really pushed the bass and drums to the front and it sounds great, particularly with the higher bass notes in the bridge and under John’s solo. 8/10
Aquatic Mouth Dance
Oh hello bass! Ok, the opening riff is as daft as the title would suggest, so this must be a Flea joint and it’s difficult to not enjoy that. Honestly though, this is pretty much Chilis-by-numbers and may well be the first to win an honorary Stadium Arcadium ‘Shoulda Been a B-Side’ Award. Great to hear a trumpet on a Chilis track again (even if it apparently isn’t Flea?) and the cacophonous brass crescendo is fun. 5/10
Not The One
This one seems destined to be another single by the sounds of it, once they’ve put out a couple of big bangers and need a slowy. In the same realm as Stadium Arcadium’s Snow (Hey Oh) but neither as dumb nor as likeable, and probably more reminiscent of the equally forgettable If. Sounds like it was written ‘lyrics first’ though, which really doesn’t play to the strengths of the band. Things are not looking great. 4/10
One I’d heard once and wasn’t impressed with, but now I feel it reaching for a Blood Sugar Sex Magik vibe and I think its making me warm to it. It’s pure nonsense, a list of playful pop culture references and difficult to ignore Keidis bollocks like “You got the best of my loco, I’ll take the rest of your showboat”. But yeah, it’s got enough of a groove and some playful guitar at the end to pull things back a bit I suppose. 5/10
The Great Apes
Starts off cold in the opening verse, but really warms in the chorus thanks to some great harmonies and choppy guitar feedback from John. Stays pretty laid back throughout, but it’s in those moments where Frusciante lifts everything you’re reminded that even on his worst day, he’ll always bring something to the party that Klinghoffer couldn’t manage on his best. Sorry Josh, but it’s true. 6/10
It’s Only Natural
Holy shit. Now we’re talking. Beautiful, warm, popping bass and John softly channelling some Let’s Dance-era Niles Rogers energy. If that wasn’t enough, the harmonies in the verse and chorus are giving me genuine shivers. All we need now is a lovely California breeze of a solo… oh, wow, there it is… wait, two of them? Right, I’m won over. Christ, I want this album to end so I can put this song on again. 10/10
She’s a Lover
Walking bass and a simple riff to add a bit of colour in the verses, but overall a song that doesn’t feel like it knows how to settle into an immediate pattern… as if it can’t decide what it wants to be. But actually, by the end, it just feels like a team of great musicians locked in a groove, with some lovely guitar to close it out and even lyrics that are working a bit harder. 7/10
These Are The Ways
Really interesting opening, feel like I can definitely hear them doing this live… maybe even a show opener. When it kicks in though, it feels like it’s tapping into something else, maybe The Stooges? The Ramones? The Who? (certainly feels like there’s some Keith Moon going on in the drums). Does it work though? Yeah, its got a vibe and feels quite different to what we’ve heard so far. Not bad. 6/10
An easy hyper melodic Flea bass that keeps John in check for the verses, before dropping right out and allowing him to soar in the chorus with a chunky, glitchy riff. As always, there are real moments of wanting the lead singer to shut up for a minute so you can hear what the band are doing, but thankfully that moment comes just in time for John’s closing, screaming solo. 8/10
Bastards of Light
John’s experimental electronica influence pops in to say hello before dropping out completely and leaving behind something much safer and more familiar. Livens up a bit in the bridge and, overall, its got enough energy to work quite well as a live track probably. If I had to line it up with albums gone by, I’d say it sort of feels like it belongs alongside the later tracks on By The Way. Interesting enough. 7/10
White Braids & Pillow Chair
Fairly standard love song for the most part. Has some very nice surf guitar sounds throughout and to close it out which works really well, plus some really nice harmonies from John on the chorus that give everything a major lift (can you spot a pattern here?). Not sure I was onboard at first, but yeah this has a nice vibe to it that seems to suggest it may be a grower. 7/10
One Way Traffic
Lyrically and rhythmically feels even more like its reaching back to Blood Sugar Sex Magik than Poster Child was. John’s persistent Hendrix influence is strong, probably thanks to the obvious lyrical connection, but as solid as the band are here, this one actually feels like Anthony’s jam – and I have to say, I can’t really fault it for that. I doubt it’ll work (or even be played) live, but as an album track I’m sold. 7/10
Some underwater guitars to open, and lyrics that seems to recall the likes of Suzanne Vega’s Luka, Blink 182’s Adam’s Song and Weezer’s My Name Is Jonas. Unlike those songs though, it never manages the same level of story or drama, again revealing the bands biggest weakness. Gives into some initial Beatling with Anthony adding some misplaced Yellow Submarine-esque noises over the chorus, before going into full I Want You (She’s So Heavy) mode at the end. Derivative then, but derivative of things I like. 7/10
Let Em Cry
Kicks off strong with a lovely walking bass and a nice lyrical melody that hits its stride even more in the chorus. Decent lyrics, excellent guitar, some nice warm keyboard and trumpet to fill things out too (presumably from Flea this time?). This sounds like something that will play well to the masses, I can’t really put my finger on why, but that No Doubt-esque ska-pop chorus just feels particularly hooky. 8/10
The Heavy Wing
A great track to start to close the album out, primarily because it feels big, but is also a great example of how in tune this gang of musicians can be when they’re putting in a shift. Without wanting to sound like too much of a broken record, we also get a chorus sang by John over his own raucous guitars and… well, it’s a window into what this band could be as a three piece. Builds to something big and bold. A banger. 9/10
A very typical, light, semi acoustic outro that recalls past tracks like Porcelain and Californication closer Road Trippin’. Adding to the mis though is some heavily Frusciante-influenced gothic keyboards that feel as if they could have been lifted straight from his 2004 masterpiece Shadows Collide With People. It’s not a classic in any sense of the word, but as a final track it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. 7/10
Important to note the above notes were written on a first listen, but having heard the album a fair few times now I largely agree with those initial thoughts. If anything the things I like, I like more now, and the things I don’t like, I’ve come to forgive in the wider context of the recordr. It has moments of brilliance, and it has a couple of misfires too, but my worries about this 17-track album being as mixed in quality as Stadium Arcadium it seems were unfounded. I guess what I’m saying, through only slightly gritted teeth, is I think I like it… quite a bit actually.
Recent interviews have revealed the band went into the studio with a tonne of songs, but more came along during the sessions. According to Frusciante, this not only resulted in Unlimited Love, but left enough for a second album that carries “a relaxed energy that’s distinct from the intensity of the record that we’ve made here.” With this in mind, I’m prepared to admit, maybe I was wrong about his and the band’s intentions. I have no idea what the popular consensus is around Unlimited Love (and honestly, I’m old enough not to care), but for me it works. More than that, I’m excited to see what comes next. And I don’t think I was expecting to say that.
Overall score: 8/10