In 2007, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere. Basking in the success of their then-newest album, Stadium Arcadium, the band sat on top of the rock world for what seemed like the umpteenth time in its illustrious (and sometimes tumultuous) career, fresh off some great chart success and a renewed sense of stability.
But while “Dani California” permeated every radio station in the country, all was not perfect in the Peppers’ world. In early 2008, lead guitarist John Frusciante secretly left the band, and the group went on an extended hiatus. The break didn’t end until December 2009, at which time the band began recording sessions with new axe man Josh Klinghoffer, a close friend of Frusciante’s.
After months of anticipation, fans finally received news about new music last autumn, and the album’s title and track-listing were released on the band’s official website June 13.
So, now that the long-awaited product is finally here, what to make of it? Well, for starters, these aren’t your parents’ Chili Peppers. The band’s punk-funk groove of the ’80s gave way to the alternative revolution of the ’90s, which gave way to a more subdued rock style this past decade, and another philosophical change is evident going into the 2010s.
The biggest difference is the guitar work: Where the departed Frusciante liked to steer the ship and produce semi-exorbitant solos every other song, Klinghoffer lets the other band members paint a musical picture, which he colors in with flecks of his own six-string subtleties. To be clear, the band is better with Frusciante, but its new guitarist is more than capable of keeping the machine running.
It takes a little while to get used to Klinghoffer’s touch, as his echoing guitar often sounds like humpback whales trying to communicate to one another instead of, you know, a guitar, but his style slowly grows more and more acceptable with multiple listens. The downside of his work is that the guitar does not drive any of the songs. There are no memorable riffs or hooks in that aspect of the music, which provides a heavy burden for the rest of the band.
Lord knows the Peppers worked hard, however. Bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary made the project his own, starting off numerous songs with his trademark bass lines and piano, a new addition to his already vast arsenal. Drummer Chad Smith is extremely talented, but his work has fallen mostly to the wayside on the past three albums. A lack of creativity on the drum set hurts I’m With You a little bit, but he still has his moments, most notably the complicated polyrhythms on “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie.”
Of course, the most important parts of an album are usually the songwriting and the vocals, and founding Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis puts in another strong effort here. He continues to strengthen his pipes, and his lyrics continue to satisfactorily walk the fine line between moronic (“The day I blew on ya / You said I grew on ya”) and poetic (“An empty shell of loveliness / Now dusted with decay”). The backup vocals, which Frusciante manned for so many years, have also been taken over by Klinghoffer, and his work there is deft enough to warrant commendation.
Album opener “Monarchy of Roses” is the one of the best tracks, slowly building up before bursting with funk disco life. Another early tune that catches the ear is “Brendan’s Death Song,” a rock ballad for Brendan Mullen, the band’s late autobiographer. Kiedis breaks into a somber chorus that seems to come from the depths of his soul, and his outburst at the end of the song is the perfect capper to a truly great piece.
“The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” the first single, is catchy enough, but the chorus feels disjointed from the rest of the song, and it doesn’t hold up very well over many listens. The crop is pretty thin for other single choices, but I would personally vouch for “Police Station,” a melancholy jam about a young woman Kiedis used to know.
The verdict on I’m With You lies in the gray area, which is more than good enough for the Chili Peppers. The initial reaction to the report of a new album was a silent prayer that the band wouldn’t drop a bombshell and stain its glorious discography. It has avoided that, and then some, but you would have to go all the way back to 1995’s One Hot Minute to find a worse effort.
Seeing as the band was very close to breaking up not so long ago, I’m With You is a large victory for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s good to have the boys back.