2004 is shaping up to be a banner year for John Frusciante. In addition to Shadows Collide with People (released in February), Frusciante plans to issue no less than six records before the year's end. The Will to Death is the first in this promised run of prolificacy, the kick-off to a period of unprecedented creative fertility. Reminiscent of George Harrison's triple LP emancipation proclamation All Things Must Pass, Frusciante is continuing to emerge from the shadow of his day job as guitarist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Will to Death was recorded on 16-track tape over the span of five days with Frusciante's recent collaborator Josh Klinghoffer. The record's focus is its organic spontaneity: in order to effectively produce, in Frusciante's words, "a celebration of flaws", the songs were mixed as soon as they were put to tape. The resulting collection of rock songs is raw and unfettered, rooted more in the immediate heat of creation than the extraneous deliberations associated with obsessive polishing. Call it rock vérité.
A solo release from John Frusciante used to mean impenetrable semi-indulgence a la Syd Barrett or Skip Spence. Early efforts like Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt and Smile from the Streets You Hold were intentionally lo-fi and difficult to say the least; to diehard Chili Pepper fans, they were challenging to the point of confrontation.
But ever since Frusciante's return from a destructive self-imposed exile, he's been more focused on songs and comprehension than experimentation for experimentation's sake. He's also less interested these days in the Hendrix guitar heroics from the Blood Sugar Sex Magik days (witness the latest Chili Pepper release By the Way, which emphasizes Frusciante's background vocal expertise over his slinky guitar noodlings) and finds a wealth of power in his increasingly confident voice. The Will to Death is an existential song cycle that finds Frusciante more dedicated to the "song" than ever before -- and even though the record isn't exactly perfect, his unwavering desire to create and explore, to cut an album and move on to the next pending project, is admirable and easy to appreciate.
The Will to Death opens with the pondering "A Doubt", in which Frusciante's guitar and Klinghoffer's drums feel like they're fused at the hip, navigating each chord stutter and rhythmic hiccup with fluid dexterity. It's a minor-key waltz, infected by some gargling synth tones, scabby guitar interjections and Frusciante's clouded musings on mortality: "Lean in to walk / We dreamed up tonight / We all choose to live life / We confuse how with why". "An Exercise" follows, which restlessly alternates its verse lines from pounding onslaughts of sound to restrained moments highlighted by Frusciante's brief falsetto. Frusciante's lyrics seem to mimic his ungovernable, fated approach to recording: "Learning that there's nothing to gain from advice / Hey doubt, come on around any time / Anyhow mistakes are what lead you through life / Down and out's only if you think up and in's right". The scuttling drum pattern and guitar flutters propel "The Days Have Turned", a song that molds ideas of death, transformation, and retreat. "Well it seems like my time's elapsed / And I've stabbed life in the back," Frusciante sings over the song's choppy rhythm, "I'm searching for what it means / To never be anything."
The album's most dynamic track, "Loss", is a skeletal rocker rooted in caution, gradually working its way to a rapturous climax of shimmering, effected organ and drums. Amped by Frusciante's gruff vocal attack, smothered in echo, "Loss" breaches the accumulation of knowledge through the experience of tragedy: "There was a time when all was empty / Unorganized, a clog, a death scene / Things opened up and there's so many / Paths to walk, ports of entry". When Frusciante and Klinghoffer's instruments communicate telepathically like they do here, you can feel the two players testing the possibilities of such a loose, unstructured environment.
Even when the songs are less melodically memorable, Frusciante provides plenty of inspired production and arrangement elements to make listening worthwhile. The stillborn non-melody in "A Loop" would otherwise doom the song if not for a fleeting moment of slithering, quickly descending multiple guitar figures and a coda of fractured, backward sound manipulations. The near-ballad "Far Away", driven by piano and an emotionally volatile vocal performance, hides its merits not in its sappy lyrics, but in the sunny cadences of the backing harmony vocals.
Despite its dour title, The Will to Death finds Frusciante feeling optimistic, or at least accepting that his life and destiny are uncontrollable and indeterminate. "Have you put them aside / Your crazy thoughts and dreams?" he wonders out loud in the closing title track. "No, they're a part of me / And they all mean one thing / The will to death is what keeps me alive." Frusciante's been to the edge and has come back to reflect upon its centripetal pull. He's found solace in mortality like Harrison before him, but where All Things Must Pass relied on faith, The Will to Death finds its strength in an understanding of limitations and inevitabilities. If anything is boundless, it's Frusciante's ability to use his life to create meaningful music; if The Will to Death is an indication of things to come, 2004 will be a fruitful year indeed.