Squaring up to the prospect of a new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, I’m reminded of a vintage quote by Nick Cave: ‘I’m forever near a stereo saying, “What… is this garbage?” And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.’ I can empathise. I don’t habitually harbour animus against artists I dislike, but something about the sheer scale of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ awfulness has always felt weirdly personal.
Despite the kind of success that looks mightily impressive in a Wikipedia stat dump – 100 million record sales, multiple Grammy wins, numerous number ones – the Californian rock band have always been tricky to tolerate, let alone love. The reasons for this are manifold. Their grimly juvenile take on sexual relations envelops their music in a cloud of toxic testosterone. One song is called ‘Hump de Bump’, another ‘Party on Your Pussy’. They have an album titled The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. They became notorious for wearing sports socks over their genitals and depicting Californian frat-boy shenanigans with all the reverence of Homer contemplating the Elysian Plains. When they on occasion turn their attention to matters of ‘spirituality’, the lyrical wisdom has the depth and nuance of an Insta meme.
The music? The music is an ugly Frankenstein’s monster constructed from all the least likeable, least groovy bits of rock, funk, psychedelia and hip hop, with an added patina of plain stupidity. Singer Anthony Kiedis radiates the kind of braggadocious bro vibes that, aurally speaking, make me want to cross the road for my own safety. Kiedis writes terrible lyrics, flatlining melodies and has a horrible shouty voice. It goes without saying that he possesses the kind of swaggering confidence inversely proportional to all these impediments. Do the sums and you could reasonably claim that Red Hot Chili Peppers have waged a 40-year campaign of brute bone-headed idiocy upon the world and yet somehow emerged triumphant.
I have been a little luckier than Cave of late. Since the 1990s, when the three albums on which the band’s success rests – Blood Sugar Sex Magik; One Hot Minute; Californication – were ubiquitous, I’ve managed to more or less avoid their music. A reckoning is long overdue. It’s time to stress test my prejudices, and what better way than by listening to their new record, Unlimited Love. Produced by long-term enabler Rick Rubin, this is the band’s first album since 2016, and their first with original guitarist John Frusciante for almost 20 years.
Per the title, Red Hot Chili Peppers are blessing us with 17 new songs – almost 75 minutes of music. This is, by some degree, too much love. The worst and sadly most prevalent kind of Red Hot Chili Peppers song is a doggedly unmelodic, squelchy faux-funk thing garnished with a half-rapped torrent of vaguely unseemly doggerel. There are several examples of this form on Unlimited Love – ‘She’s a Lover’; ‘Whatchu Thinkin’; ‘One Way Traffic’; ‘Let ’Em Cry’ – but we shall let ‘Poster Child’ speak for all of them. Imagine Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ if Joel had been more interested in the Thompson Twins and Caddyshack than Belgians in the Congo. It’s very bad indeed.
Other diversions are simply bizarre. On the plodding, phased folk-rock pastiche ‘Black Summer’, Kiedis’s absurd vocal appears to be a misguided tribute to a West Country pirate. It’s a song with an acute identity crisis: it thinks it is ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which is bad enough, when it is actually Spinal Tap fronted by Edward Teach.
Mercifully, Red Hot Chili Peppers have a secret weapon. Bass player Flea is a world-class musician who over the years has negotiated a series of day-release deals in order to play with grown-ups such as Thom Yorke. His contributions dominate the best songs here. The slippery groove of ‘It’s Only Natural’ is genuinely terrific. The pretty ‘The Great Apes’ reminds me of early REM, off-time and slightly odd. ‘Aquatic Mouth Dance’ is a rhythmically interesting blend of lounge funk and blaring soul, marred only by Kiedis’s contribution, which can be likened to a toddler scrawling on the walls.
One other positive. Though it is far too long, sonically this isn’t a fussy or overcooked record. The production is clean and punchy for the most part, and Frusciante is a powerfully succinct player, only really letting his indulgences fly on ‘The Heavy Wing’. What else? There’s a ballad that sounds like a 1980s Elton John cast-off, and an acoustic waltz called ‘Tangelo’. More than enough to conclude that Cave’s putdown isn’t entirely fair, but it’s not exactly wrong, either.
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