The Anniversary

By The Way Turns 20

Warner
2002
Warner
2002

By the early ’00s, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ comeback was in full swing. After the massive success of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the fortunes of the Peppers took a dip in the mid-’90s. Their wunderkind guitarist John Frusciante left the band and battled addiction; Anthony Kiedis relapsed himself. They hired Dave Navarro for 1995’s darker, strung-out One Hot Minute, which was regarded as a commercial and critical failure (despite accruing its defenders in the years since). Then, Frusciante rejoined the fold, and they returned with Californication in 1999, their second massive, definitive album bookending the ’90s along with BSSM. The band’s peak lineup was intact, they were spinning out hits, and they were beginning to evolve artistically.

Californication would kick off a fruitful and ambitious period for RHCP, a new trilogy of Frusciante-era albums with sprawling tracklists in which the band began to seemingly try just about any idea that came their way. Following up the blockbuster Californication was By The Way, which arrived 20 years ago tomorrow. It sits in the middle of that trilogy, almost right in the middle of the band’s existence, and in a strange position in terms of their overall output. By The Way was in some ways an extension of what began on Californication, in some ways an outlier. It is far from the album that would encapsulate everything core to the band’s identity. And yet, whether in spite of or because of that, it might just be their best.

If Californication was an album on which Frusciante had to relearn how to be a Chili Pepper, he was firing on all cylinders for By The Way. It’s known as the RHCP album where Frusciante seized almost complete creative control. Fueled by a Beatles/Beach Boys/doo-wop phase, he pushed Kiedis in a more consistently melodic direction and then draped those vocals with all kinds of his own harmonies. Name-checking new wave and post-punk acts, Frusciante’s drive was to bring the band to a new place, rather than retreading the funk-punk he thought they’d already nailed.

In 2002, some detractors said By The Way didn’t showcase enough development relative to Californication, that it just continued the softer direction of its predecessor. And while it certainly kept on forging ahead into the new territory the group had explored on Californication, that critique is a disservice to how striking By The Way is in the grand scheme of RHCP’s catalogue. Across the album, the band were in a subtler, more intricate mode that yielded a consistently beautiful, lush sound.

Even Kiedis was in a more reflective mood. Having recently exited a relationship, he was simultaneously wistful and fixated on all the love and beauty in the world; he was also once more newly sober after another relapse, resulting in rare moments like “This Is The Place” and “Don’t Forget Me” where he wrote some truly poignant lyrics. Between that and the way Frusciante sculpted his own vocals and guitar lines across By The Way, it became one of those special albums that could be equally melancholic and euphoric depending on what you needed from it in the moment.

On several levels, By The Way being Frusciante’s feverish vision of a RHCP album worked quite well. The album was another big success, and it gave the band several enduring signature songs. All these years later, the whiplash of “By The Way” — with its thunderous, mechanical verses, lilting melodies, and cathartic final chorus — has solidified it as one of the band’s classics. (They’ve been closing shows with it recently amidst their most recent reunion with Frusciante.) “Can’t Stop” has become another iconic Peppers track, its indelible riff and lighter funk aligning with their history while still fitting into the By The Way aesthetic. While they’ve had slightly less prominence in the band’s overall mythos in the last 20 years, you also have the infectious glide of “The Zephyr Song” and the simmering-then-volcanic “Don’t Forget Me.”

There were ramifications to Frusciante’s assertion of control, though. No matter what you say about RHCP through the years, it’s undeniable that the musical unit of Frusciante, Flea, and Chad Smith is a powerful one, and the interplay between them can be fascinating. With Frusciante taking the reins, it led to a power imbalance that essentially sidelined Flea — who, beyond being one of RHCP’s only constant members, is also obviously a bedrock to their sound no matter the era. He felt so alienated by Frusciante during the making of By The Way that he considered quitting before they went on tour, and then again throughout that tour. It took a meeting to patch up their relationship, and by the time they were promoting Stadium Arcadium, Flea was talking about this stuff openly: “John went to this whole level of artistry,” he told Q in 2006. “But he made me feel like I had nothing to offer, like I knew shit.”

While By The Way might not represent the exact full spectrum of Frusciante’s talents — there is precious little of the nimble funk licks or searing rock soloing he has deployed to such dizzying effects across other albums — it is a true tour de force and probably the single greatest showcase for him as a musician, whether solo or in RHCP. His lyricism, the way his guitar-playing could sound like gorgeous vocal melodies, was at its peak here, like in the way “Universally Speaking” shifts from swirling underwater effects to the sun-dappled yearning of his solo. On “Dosed,” he layered four guitar parts into a laidback cascade; then on “Don’t Forget Me” he opted for a sort of minimal abstraction, sputtering flickers haunting the shadows until the final emotional release of the song’s solo. On “Midnight,” his arrangement demanded a swelling synth-string that gave the band an uncharacteristic majesty; in “On Mercury” and so many others, his angelic background vocals buoyed Kiedis. The reason “Can’t Stop” has remained so unshakable was Frusciante’s immortal riff, one of his single greatest moments; but then on “Throw Away Your Television,” he warped his instrument beyond recognition, offering a garbled, burbling eruption of a solo that’s still hard to figure out all these years later.

On other RHCP albums, there are plenty of examples of Frusciante being the “weird” Pepper, the guy who colored the edges of their music with something just ever so slightly more adventurous. But for those of us who have, at times, justified our ongoing adoration for RHCP based on the (somewhat unfair) understanding of Frusciante as the guitar wizard trapped in an often doofy alt-rock band, By The Way is the document that proves it all, over and over again. Anecdotally speaking, it seems that whether you’re a devout Frusciante acolyte or a self-conscious indie-minded fan with warm feelings towards the Peppers, there’s at least a few of us out there that believe By The Way is the actual masterpiece in the band’s history.

I have to admit some biases here. I’ve long been transfixed by Frusciante’s playing — as a teenager learning guitar, a lot of his stuff was my favorite to play — and I’m certainly the kind of music listener who grew up whole-heartedly loving RHCP and then had various phases of wrestling with that fandom as I got older. But also: By The Way hit me at just the right time. I was 11 when it came out and was just figuring out my own music interests; I’d go to a friend’s house and play Nintendo all night while listening to By The Way, Nevermind, Paranoid, Appetite For Destruction, and The Battle Of Los Angeles over and over. It was one of my gateway-drug albums, the same as RHCP are a gateway-drug band for so many people.

It feels inherently contrarian to make an argument that an album like By The Way, by its very nature an oddity due to a sole member’s vision temporarily overhauling the band, is secretly their best album. You have the very obvious counter-argument that the apex of RHCP’s career is the ’90s classic Blood Sugar Sex Magik, on which they fully realized their early aesthetic and ethos. You could maybe — maybe — make the argument that with all these extra decades of hindsight, Californication actually stands at the center of 40 years as the definitive Chili Peppers work, for the way it refines their past while also breaking new ground that would go on to shape the rest of their career. Making the case for By The Way almost feels like wishing another band into existence, fan fiction of the same sort that drives thought experiments about whether Frusciante could’ve scaled greater heights in a different band, or whether his genius was so evident in RHCP because of the contrasts between his sensitivity and the band’s occasional arrested adolescence.

Here’s what I’ll say, though: After all these years, I’ve listened to By The Way a truly countless amount of times. Clutching a Walkman on family drives down the East Coast to Florida, I should’ve worn this thing out by the time I was 13, let alone 20 years after it came out. When I go back to it, it in some ways feels like an old friend in the way your old favorite pieces of art do. But really what I’m taken aback by is how it still has some magical and unknown and transporting quality to me.

Maybe you’re not supposed to come to RHCP for sophistication; maybe you shouldn’t really look at a blip and still wonder what could’ve happened if they’d continued on a different path. But in this moment, the Peppers were just a bit more mature, had just a bit more gravity, at the same time that their musical ideas were overflowing — every melody, every extra textural detail, every pristine guitar line fits perfectly into the album’s hallucinogenic daydream vibe. Far more than all their blunter attempts to conjure the California they hold so dear, By The Way feels like a drifting afternoon in LA where sadness and joy, ugliness and beauty, could freely mingle. Everyone knows RHCP operate on a different level when Frusciante is in the fold, and memories of these albums are what ignited excitement about the ultimately lackluster reunion album Unlimited Love earlier this year. Twenty years later, By The Way feels like a particular moment of alchemy in their career, one that we hadn’t heard from them before and one we won’t hear again.

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