It’s hard to credit that Red Hot Chili Peppers have around for over 30 years, but their self-titled debut album did indeed hit shelves in 1984. They’re career arc is a particularly fascinating one. As they developed in the ‘80s, with each successive album their sound became tighter, their songwriting skills better, and Anthony Kiedis became a more accomplished frontman and vocalist (Flea has been a bad mofo on the bass since the beginning). It finally came together for them to a large degree on 1989’s superb Mother’s Milk, which was followed two years later by the certifiable rock classic Blood Sugar Sex Magick.
Their transition from raw funk-punk to arena rock has not been a smooth journey, and there have been numerous lineup changes. The constant is Kiedis and Flea — they have always been the dynamic core around which the Chili Peppers built their sound. As they’ve progressed, they’ve matured as songwriters and musicians. They’ve scored massive hits, but also albums that are more hit and miss. Their last album, 2013’s I’m With You will never be considered their finest work but, like all of their albums since Mother’s Milk, it still has its share of strong moments.
That brings us to their just-released 11th album, The Getaway, their second since guitarist John Frusciante left the band for a second time. It’s quite a departure for the band. It’s their first album since Mother’s Milk not produced by Rick Rubin. This time around they’re working with producer/musician Danger Mouse. The resulting sound is lean and warm, but a complete and total departure from anything the Chili Peppers have done in the past. Maybe that’s the point, and nobody begrudges a band the chance to grow and try different things, but they don’t seem to have a clear idea of who the 2016 version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers really is or should be. The generally mellowish The Getaway isn’t particularly engaging. Without the kinetic funk of their old style to amp up the energy, it’s mostly listless and drab. Strong melodic hooks are few and far between.
The album opens with the jittery title-track, which, apart from Anthony Kiedis’ vocal, sounds little like the Red Hot Chili Peppers past work. That in itself wouldn’t matter so much if there was there was anything else compelling about the track, but there simply isn’t. It just lays there flat. Lead single “Dark Necessities” is better, with a popping bass and Kiedis showing more spirit and urgency. Still, in a sign of the Chili Peppers’ current sonic trajectory, where you might expect snarls of guitar between verses there is instead an ornate piano passage. Josh Klinghoffer offers a restrained guitar solo to close the track, but it’s tied-down and precise, carefully cultivated in the studio and lacking in fire.
“We Turn Red” alternates between crunchy rock and soft acoustic segments that wouldn’t sound out of place on the new Radiohead album. One of the album’s finest moments is “The Longest Wave”, which opens with a lovely acoustic guitar pattern that repeats throughout the slow-grooving verses, which is broken up by a hard-rocking chorus. Unfortunately the following song, “Goodbye Angels”, is build on a substantially similar guitar pattern, and follows the same formula of low-key verses and edgier choruses. At least “Goodbye Angels” breaks out with a funky bass solo by Flea and some high-wire guitar as the song fades out, but it’s not enough to salvage the track.
“Sick Love” is another mid-tempo piece without much in the way of a melodic hook. With lilting piano and gentle guitar, “Sick Love” is another example of the Chili Peppers’ apparent contentment with middle-of-the-road material lacking a real spark or emotion. Danger Mouse’s immaculate production seems to hold back the conviction we’ve heard from Kiedis in prior downbeat tracks like “Under the Bridge” or “Scar Tissue”.
The album continues in the same fashion — mostly low key mid-tempo groovers without much in the way of passion or melodies to grab the listener. “Go Robot”, despite shimmery guitar effects, comes and goes with little impact. Kiedis’ vocals are particular dry and expressionless here, as they are through much of the album. A sameness creeps in the longer the album continues. Kiedis’ vocal delivery changes very little from song to song, and there’s little in the way of sonic adventure or variety. It becomes a slog to get through to the end.
“Detroit” is one of the better tracks, a bluesy rocker that could have been so much better had Danger Mouse unleashed the band rather than reigning them into his rigid, too carefully cultivated production style. Kiedis’ vocal during the chorus is painfully off-key, which is another recurring problem throughout the album, and for the most part his vocals are consistently too high in the mix.
“This Ticonderoga” alternates between hard-rocking segments with distorted bursts of guitar and slower segments heavy with piano and a weaving guitar line that’s like a hot knife through butter. It’s another song that could have been great had the band really been able to unleash their fury — or maybe they no longer have that fury?
It sure sounds like that might be the case on the listless ballad “Encore”, which finds Kiedis singing in exactly the same tone and tenor that he uses throughout the album. There’s no discernable passion or intensity, no real emotion or feeling. It’s all very clinical. “The Hunter” is a plodding piano ballad with a particularly awful vocal by Kiedis and chiming lines of guitar that give the song it’s only hints of beauty. The album ends with the six-minute “Dreams of a Samurai”, which is obviously meant to be the epic closer, but once again it’s stuck in a dreary mid-tempo malaise that does little to alleviate the album’s overall placidity. Melodically it’s vaguely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” from Dark Side of the Moon, but with none of the grace and power.
Ultimately, The Getaway just doesn’t deliver the goods. It’s obviously not through lack of effort, as the attention to detail and earnest desire to deliver something powerful is crystal clear. The album finds the Chili Peppers trying to transition to their next stage, but the pathway is cloudy. Is this the adult contemporary very of the Chili Peppers? The energy and raw edge that has always made their music so vital is sapped by Danger Mouse’s restrained production. With a few exceptions when he’s allowed to briefly break out, Flea is almost an non-entity on The Getaway. It makes little sense to bury perhaps the band’s greatest attribute and instead rely strongly on Kiedis’ shaky vocals to carry the album, especially when they material is sorely lacking in strong melodic hooks. Similarly, drummer Chad Smith is lost in the new Chili Peppers’ sound — any session drummer could have filled his slot and it wouldn’t have matter one whit.
The Getaway is particularly disappointing because the band obviously tried hard to present something more mature and compelling, but the excitement that has always been the hallmark of Red Hot Chili Peppers has been sapped. The whole album has the unmistakable aura of pointlessness. There’s no passion, no tension, no thrills, nothing memorable to draw the listener into the sonic world the Chili Peppers and Danger Mouse have tried to create.