Any time you deal with a band as polarizing as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you have to be careful. Personally, I fall on the side that adores their superb musicianship and find myself arguing with the other half who shake their heads and say, “I just don’t get them.” The reason this is potentially dangerous is that, when listening, you may find yourself justifying their music for future discussions instead of objectively listening and assessing. When I sat down to listen to I’m With You, the lamely titled but much awaited tenth studio album (that I never thought would come), I tried very very hard to step back and absorb it truthfully.
The album starts interestingly enough with some distorted Anthony Kiedis vocals (a Peppers first as far as I know) in a tune that builds and builds before throwing itself into one of their older funk rock beats. While I enjoy “Monarchy of Roses” on some level, it feels just a little too much like something that’s done before. If you were to hear it for the first time, you may confuse it with something off of one of their 90s albums or even with another band (never a good sign).
We are then thrown into “Faith Factory,” which easily ends up being my least favorite song on the album. Not a good start. The song simply employs every criticism that I have about the band; songs where Kiedis insists on singing in little choppy breaths that are so brief and faux-rap that I have a hard time understanding anything he is saying. I already feel the album slipping away.
Finally we get a song that I enjoy and feels like a step away from the usual in “Brendan’s Death Song.” All of the times the Peppers have taken it down and gone a little acoustic and softer over the past decade (“Dosed,” “Slow Cheetah”) have been some of my favorite songs. We get some tender guitar plucking, an enjoyably catchy beat, and building stadium flare in the background. The song embodies what I enjoy about them; their ability to combine superb instrumentals with catchy but not quite pop beats and reflective lyrics. (“The nights are long, but the years are short, when you’re alive”)
“Ethiopa” gives us some more vintage Peppers with a heavy Flea bass riff; proving how he is the only bass player I have ever heard that makes it a lead instrument. Honestly, is there ever another example of this? I don’t think so. Even Thom Yorke agrees. That alone carries this song, even if Kiedis sounds (again) like he is just a tad off key. It has a good hook, another catchy refrain that will pop up in my head in the weeks that follow. The album is heading towards good not great at this point.
“Annie Wants a Baby” is another bass-driven song that, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite pack the same punch. The beat isn’t really memorable enough in its own right and has to start falling back on some “yeah eee eahhs” as the definable melody. Newby guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer (more on him in one second), actually plays some pretty moving guitar, but it is forced into the background of the song. It’s as if I can’t get to it from the other stuff. Back to feeling torn on the album.
“Look Around” is undoubtedly going to be one of their singles off of this album (likely the next one) because it has that feel good accessibility and rather simple message (it’s telling you look around). We get another pounding bass and funky beat from their old days. The band just seems to be enjoying themselves a little too much on this song (as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s the truth). The song is packed with clapping, whooing and some more of the infamous talk-singing in the verses before a tongue rolling refrain that’s easy to sing along with. The song is fine but just a little busy for my taste. Klinghoffer hits a few high notes that seem like they will launch into a solo but stop rather abruptly in my opinion.
Now, Klinghoffer is his own separate issue. He had to fill the shoes of John Frusciante, whom I consider to be one of the top three or four guitarists of this generation, and really needed to impress on this album. Five tracks in, I find myself waiting for proof that he is even here. I understand that they are a bass driven band and that Flea is the driving creative force, but let the kid open up a little. Is he in or not? All of his “lead” guitar contributions are forced to the back of their songs and leave him playing glorified hooks.
Finally, we come to “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” the single that will undoubtedly make its rounds on the air waves in the near future. I have already complaints about it sounding too much like previous Peppers material but I’ll be point blank honest; I like it. It sounds the most like their glory days of anything off of the album. Sure, we get the loaded bass heavy track yet again, but they just find a way to pull it off. The refrain is the chill crooning Kiedis that I have come to love over the years. Then, as if from nowhere, Klinghoffer finally gets a shot at center stage with some moaning guitar in the refrain and borderline Zeppelin style shredding in the bridges. It seemed like Frusciante was back for at least one track.
Now it seems as if the album has made a 180 at this point. All of the pieces start to come together. On the very next track, “Did I Let You Know,” we get equal parts tribal drum beat, equal parts melo guitar and equal parts, alas, BRASS! Kiedis dips down into his chill out zone where he is the most successful and seemingly the most comfortable. The backup vocals and distorted solo in the middle feel like Klinghoffer is finally a part of this thing and it’s not so bad.
The album seems to be getting a bit more challenging at this point. A song like “Goodbye Hooray” would have irked me if it appeared in those earlier tracks, but at this points, I’m settled in and really starting to hear them as a group. The drum beats are getting much more complicated (described by Flea as “African”). We’re not quite in King of Limbs territory, but Back in Black seems eons ago. Probably the fastest paced song on the whole album, but Kiedies turns in another solid performance and hoffer’s presence continues to grow. I mostly appreciate the energy you feel coming off of this track and the ambition it takes to try and make something like this. It may be seem a little generic, but when you tune in and listen to how much is really going on, I promise that it’s pretty impressive, especially the “Miserlou” style bass solo at the two minute mark.
Now we’re moving with “Happiness Loves Company.” We’ve got a Peppers song opening with a piano tune? Unless Flea is playing it, I am totally caught off guard. I searched my mental library for a song with they used a piano heavily and could not produce one. There has to be something somewhere. Oh well, this is clearly the product of the music history and theory courses that Flea took at USC during the hiatus. They explore a few other options instrumentally (something that sounds like a Frampton vocal piece) here and create a bit of a poppy anthem. Not their best outing on the album, but it’s something I can run to and a break from the mold. I can admire it even if I think it’s a bit of a miss.
“Police Station” quickly snags the title of my favorite song on the entire album. We have all of the elements really starting to come together now (some more piano presence, supple acoustic guitar, vintage Peppers chorus-style vocals in the background. It feels like everything that I knew the band was capable of has brought it together into this one; intelligent but not overly experimental lyrics, the ability to feel both hard and soft at the same time, and just the right amount of artisan influence. I know that the album is at its apex and won’t be able to sustain it from here on out.
For whatever reason, they decide to go Jesus Christ Superstar meets Talking Heads in “Even You Brutus?” The song is certainly weird as Kiedis belts out the refrain in a sort talk-speak soap box style that sounds like a circus ring leader. I admire the departure from their usual style but I’m not so sure if this one suits them (it feels on every album like Kiedis insists on singing at least two songs in some unconventional way). The guitar and piano dueling out the borderline haunted melody does make for an interesting aesthetic, though.
I can’t really point to anything overtly noticeable in “Meet Me at the Corner.” It is probably Kiedis’s best vocal performance on the album as it falls back within his limited range. We get a few more flashes of Klinghoffer donning high pitched club scene guitar hooks that seem to end before they should. The song is representative of pretty much everything they try on this album (mixing a litany of instruments and “sounds” together for a collective chill out) but doesn’t really excel at anything.
The final act really encases the entire album. Titled “Dance, Dance, Dance” we get some different drum beats, multiple guitars and background singing echoing in the background. I don’t think it’s any accident that the album ends with this. It represents their desire to not really do anything incredibly visionary or post-contemporary (the theme of the song is to lose yourself and to dance… I mean, that’s never been done before). It represents the flaws of the band as a whole (Kiedis just can’t seem to find the key) and the problems of their new era (Klinghoffer spends the entire album either imitating Frusciante or hiding in his shadow). Drawing attention to your flaws is not really the way you want to go out on your album.
In the end, I still enjoyed it. I need to accept that we are over a decade removed from their critically acclaimed Californication and nearly a decade removed from their underrated masterpiece, By the Way. I don’t think I would shock anyone by saying that they are getting old. When I see pictures of them with their shirts off now, I see the embattled scars that their nearly four decade career has placed on them. I wouldn’t quite put them in the Ric Flair/Iggy Pop gross old man body section just yet, but we have to know that we are getting there. I hate to say that any band’s best years are behind them, but how do we avoid it with them? I suppose there is still hope for them to unlock new doors and create new sounds as they approach their golden years, but I don’t really get the impression that that’s what they want to do at this point. They didn’t think that this album would ever happen. So I guess I’m not surprised that I listen to it and don’t hear any effort to create something new or any type of reinvention (save a couple of piano melodies). On their previous three albums, they were trying to create art, stretch their limitations, deal with personal vices and drug addictions, and rebrand themselves. This time, they just wanted to do music their way. Can you blame them? That’s why you get fifteen tracks of Kiedis singing unpredictably, Flea forcing the bass guitar to first on the depth chart, a guitarist hiding somewhere in the background, and the occasional funk freak out and chill rock jams. I guess that’s what makes them the Red Hot Chili Peppers after all.
It’s not exceptional but it’s a good listen. They’re still the band you love (or hate?). You can tell that they miss Frusciante, his effortless savvy and his artistic contributions. But you couldn’t really expect him to stick around (this is the third time he has quit) and for them to sustain themselves (their last album was nearly 30 songs over two discs!). There are still shades of those days and more to come (they plan on recording an eleventh studio album after this current tour), and the next time I get into a Chili Peppers debate… I’m With Them.