Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Red Hot Chili Peppers Unlimited Love

Warner
2022
Warner
2022

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for — well, at least those of us who are still at all invested in the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2022. Unlimited Love, the first album RHCP have made with John Frusciante since 2006’s sprawling end-of-an-era double album Stadium Arcadium, is out this week. There have been plenty of lineup variations in RHCP’s history, and other crucial guitarists — the early-days imprint and tragic loss of Hillel Slovak; Dave Navarro’s work on the underrated, drug-stricken One Hot Minute. But everyone knows there is a core, iconic RHCP lineup, the one with which they’ve made most of their best music: Anthony Kiedis, Flea, John Frusciante, and Chad Smith.

Frusciante famously started out as a RHCP fan nearly 10 years younger than the rest of the band, tasked with replacing Slovak and first recording with them for Mother’s Milk. But soon, the teenage devotee became a crucial force in defining RHCP’s biggest albums. He could do melancholic spins on Hendrix-esque playing, supply heavy funk licks, unleash searing solos. At the peak of his powers within the group, in the run from Californication to Stadium Arcadium, he was the guy who made RHCP songs “interesting,” either through gorgeously understated guitar in otherwise brash songs, or in mutating his instrument beyond recognition, or in translating the big riffs of classic rock heritage into a turn-of-the-century alt-rock language. No disrespect to Josh Klinghoffer, who did an admirable job during his 2010s stint with the group, but it never felt right. I’m With You and The Getaway seemed like a stagnant intermission, the long waiting room for Frusciante to hopefully, someday, reappear.

Then again, he was absent far longer this time. Frusciante first exited the Chili Peppers in 1992 on the heels of their blockbuster breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik and ultimately spent six years away before rejoining for the similarly inescapable Californication. His second sojourn away from RCHP essentially doubled that timespan; when he announced he was leaving in 2009, the band had already been on a two-year hiatus following Stadium Arcadium. So when the band announced Frusciante’s return on Dec. 15, 2019 — almost 10 years to the day since his second departure — it was something of a shock. The gang was finally getting back together. For many fans — especially those of us who may or may not have used Frusciante, a universally beloved and respected virtuoso, as justification for our ongoing adoration of RHCP — all was right, all was restored.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers felt the same way. In any interview since, every member has fixated on how great it was to be reunited. “John Frusciante has a profound impact on everything that we do, and even when he wasn’t in the band he had a profound impact on everything that we do,” Flea told KROQ in February. “We all speak the same language. When he’s in the band, we’re able to communicate with each other without speaking and create music in a very fluid way.” To hear the band tell it, there was an electricity, an overwhelming spiritual rebirth, to their initial rehearsals with Frusciante back in the fold. While they got the cobwebs out playing covers, they soon turned to jamming and figuring out new material. Apparently, there was an overflow. RHCP rejoined Rick Rubin — who had produced every album of theirs since Blood Sugar Sex Magik save The Getaway — and supposedly recorded close to 50 songs. Speaking to NME, Frusciante said there’s a “loose plan” for a second album soon after Unlimited Love, with all the members glowingly speaking of the sessions, clearly inspired.

Unfortunately, even if you’re someone who regards RHCP warmly, it’s often difficult to hear that inspiration on Unlimited Love. It’s not uncommon for Chili Peppers albums featuring Frusciante to stretch towards 20 songs, but Unlimited Love does the least to justify its hour-plus length. Much of it sounds exactly like the premise that’s thus far been presented: the four of these guys getting back together, no more, no less. On some level, that’s respectable enough. Unlimited Love finds this lineup in their purest form, ecstatically jamming, reveling in being in the same room again. But for Frusciante acolytes who hoped his presence would mean more of the sharpened pop hooks and subtle textural explorations that defined the band’s Frusciante-iest albums, Unlimited Love is a mixed bag.

Longtime fans will find things to enjoy, to root for, across the album. Once you get over Kiedis’ nonsensical out-of-nowhere pseudo-Irish accent on “Black Summer,” it feels like a slightly lower-key take on an old-school RHCP anthem. “Here Ever After” rides a solid groove to a chorus that initially seems tossed-off but is sneakily catchy. The airiness of “Not The One” pleasantly recalls the Peppers getting dangerously close to maturity on By The Way 20 years ago. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” is in some ways the sort of song RHCP could write in their sleep — but that also means they’re in a sweet spot there, and the song is emphasized by a cool horn arrangement.

Elsewhere, the highlights arrive just in hearing Frusciante reintegrate himself with this band. “Black Summer” kicked the whole thing off — Frusciante, in the midst of figuring out how to write Chili Peppers music again, apparently heard the chords while lying in bed and wrote it all out there. Fittingly, its progression does conjure a sort of classic RHCP vibe. On “The Great Apes,” his chorus riff works like a collapsing staircase that Kiedis desperately climbs before it disappears. Throughout, it’s a small joy to hear his sighing background vocals once more accompanying Kiedis. On that note, one of the album’s best and most surprising moments is in its penultimate track “The Heavy Wing,” when Kiedis seems like he’s teeing up for a big chorus but instead cedes the foreground to Frusciante for a chorus full of distorted guitar and howled vocals that’ll be particularly heartwarming if you’re into Frusciante’s early 2000s solo albums.

Otherwise, the bulk of Unlimited Love is easy to take or leave. Most of it isn’t aggressively bad, at least by RHCP standards. The distorted vocal and nu-rock breakdown in “Bastards Of Light” is pretty rough, and Kiedis’ already-pilloried teenage rhymes on “Poster Child” (“Adam Ant and Robert Plant were centers of a sycophant/ Enlisted by Ulysses Grant to record at the Record Plant,” etc.) are all the more embarrassing when you realize this man is almost 60 years old. But really, the crime of Unlimited Love, with all its weight within RHCP’s narrative and all the excitement some might’ve felt, is that the bulk of the album is just completely unmemorable. So much of it is RHCP doing pale echoes of past work, without melodies or arrangements distinct enough to even recall specific antecedents. Sure, that’s them honing in on a sound inherent to the four of them as musicians. But even after a few listens, as certain songs have begun to ingratiate themselves, it’s hard not to feel like this is a 17-track would-be comeback filled with tracks that’d be third- or fourth-tier material on BSSM, Californication, By The Way, or Stadium Arcadium.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. The album’s not disastrous. Maybe some RHCP fans will fully and whole-heartedly embrace it. But to me, the thing that’s good about those other overstuffed Frusciante-era RHCP albums is that they truly fired off in a million directions: Some songs were transcendently fun, some surprisingly wistful and poignant, some completely dumb train wrecks. That was the gamble, the grab bag these guys presented — a restless creative energy that every so often really hit on something special. Unlimited Love, in comparison, is a very dry, meat-and-potatoes iteration of RHCP’s sound and identity. There’s a reason the horn arrangement stands out so much on “Aquatic Mouth Dance” — there’s precious little differentiating these songs otherwise.

It’s not like the machine is rusty or broken after a decade of hibernation. It just doesn’t seem like it’s really firing yet, despite the band members talking about how adventurous they were feeling, how anything went once Frusciante was back in the room. Maybe there will be a second album and it’ll be, as Frusciante suggested, quite different than Unlimited Love; maybe that will tell a different, completed story about these reunion sessions. Hopefully Unlimited Love is just the sound of RHCP’s new era warming up.

Unlimited Love is out 4/1 on Warner.

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