So the Red Hot Chili Peppers turn 40 this year (save guitarist John Frusciante who is 32) and with a veritable laundry list of personal and creative woes over the last 15 years — nervous breakdowns, drug addiction, death, personnel changes, illnesses, and accidents — this is no small accomplishment. In fact, it’s nothing short of miraculous that the Peppers are alive, sober, and creatively stronger than ever before. Though they have arrived at this place with more than just a hint of triumph, it is also clear they have no intention of resting on their laurels.
Only time will tell if By the Way will be as influential as 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik or as timeless as some of the other albums to which it is being compared: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But, without reservation, it can be said By the Way is certainly the most absorbing rock album of 2002, if not the best.
After 1995’s disappointing One Hot Minute, it might have been easy to write off the Peppers. John Frusciante had departed abruptly in 1992 and it seemed he took the remaining (surviving?) members’ hearts with him. 1999’s Californication, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first album with a newly clean and rehabbed Frusciante, saw the return of that intangible musical chemistry that some bands just have. Californication was a multi-platinum hit which earned the Peppers a new generation of fans. The album offered radio-friendly ballads which showcased a gentler side of the Peppers’ raucous front man Anthony Kiedis, and also had enough funk to keep the die-hards happy.
By the Way, on the other hand, has little in the way of funk — “By the Way,” “Can’t Stop” and “Throw Away Your Television” notwithstanding — and instead, showcases a more sophisticated, lush sound that only today’s Peppers could have conceived. Flea’s bass and Kiedis’ funky rapping style are not the stars of this record. John Frusciante’s warm, understated guitar work and his doo-wop style vocal harmonies are king this time around. That 1950s and early 1960s doo-wop sound can be heard on many of By the Way‘s songs, but most notably on the girl group-inspired “Universally Speaking” and the Latin-tinged “Cabron”. Both songs take me back to my intense, though brief, childhood love affair with 1950s rock music.
Anthony Kiedis’ lyrics are more personal than ever. It is clear he has grown comfortable sharing his vulnerability and is no longer content to hide behind his Sex God persona. If you’re looking for clever sexual innuendo and quirky double entendres, you’ve come to the wrong album, in the wrong decade. Most of this album was recorded post-break up with Kiedis’ long time girlfriend, Yohanna Logan. And the themes of love and loss, or more succinctly, loss of love, can be keenly felt on this record. The utterly gorgeous ballad, “Dosed”, with the twirling/swirling guitar intro, just bubbling over with feminine energy, contains the lyric “I got dosed by you / Closer than most to you / What am I supposed to do? / Take it away I never had it anyway / Take it away and everything will be okay.” And the ethereal, almost new-agey, “I Could Die for You”, is a real heartbreaker featuring a melancholy Kiedis’ plaintive wail: ” . . . Close the door and no one has to know how we are.”
Other standouts on the album include “Midnight”, which would have fit in perfectly on the Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Everything from the unexpected strings in the intro to the 1970s classic rock sound of the pre-chorus and chorus to the hippy-friendly lyric “Everyone knows, anything goes,” evokes images of tie-dyed T-shirts and AM radio. “Minor Thing” is a straight up contemporary rock song that contains a surprise funk-rap chorus in the middle. And “Venice Queen” written for Kiedis’ longtime friend and former drug counselor Gloria Scott, who recently died of cancer, is a masterpiece. Frusciante’s boundless, shapeless guitar intro creates a heavenly sound akin to what the air feels like after a long, pounding rain. The song tackles issues of God, death, and reincarnation and Frusciante’s backing vocals are hauntingly beautiful. “I know you said you don’t believe in God / Do you still disagree, now that it’s time for you to leave?” The second half of the six-minute song changes direction with a cue from Frusciante’s acoustic guitar. What was a slow, mid-tempo ballad turns into a psychedelic rock extravaganza.
John Frusciante has finally confirmed what fans of his three solo albums have known for quite some time, he is a musical talent to be reckoned with and is the undeniable X factor in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sound. But please, make no mistake; both Flea and drummer Chad Smith are also extremely important to this album. Flea and Chad really are shaping up to be the truly essential rock rhythm section of this generation and they live up to that distinction on By the Way more for knowing when to hold back than for any flashy moves they might make.
Of course, there are some mediocre tracks on this album. The lackluster “The Zephyr Song” and the faux ska “On Mercury” immediately come to mind. But overall this really is a strong and dynamic record that is full of surprises and creative stretching.
So 40 looks good on the Red Hot Chili Peppers after all. They are older, wiser, and anything but dull. Sure, the Peppers have taken a risk with their new album, but they have also given themselves a fighting chance at relevancy in 10 years. How many bands who have been together as long can say the same?