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John Frusciante’s Red Hot Chili Peppers Return Is Welcome, If Not Perfect

‘Unlimited Love’ isn’t top-tier RHCP, but it may be the band’s most consistent album

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In most respects, the stakes couldn’t possibly be lower for the release of Unlimited Love, the 12th album by Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Chilis will turn 40 years old next year. (As a band, that is; as individuals, they’re mostly 60 or about to be.) They’ve sold more than 100 million records, and they’ve sold their song catalog for more than $100 million. They’ve also sold out shows on an upcoming world stadium tour, for which many future attendees—including, I must admit, me—bought tickets without having heard a second of a single song from Unlimited Love. Their tube socks have been hanging from the rafters of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a full decade; friend-of-the-band Chris Rock inducted them in 2012, and only Flea’s bass strings were slapped. (Never forget that Rock’s directorial credits encompass three feature films, two TV specials, one sitcom episode, and the music video for “Hump de Bump.”)

Yet for a 12th album by an almost 40-year-old Hall of Fame band whose financial future, musical legacy, critical reputation, and drawing power have all long since been cemented, Unlimited Love feels oddly consequential. It’s the Chilis’ first album in six years, which is the longest they’ve ever gone between records. It’s their first album in more than a decade to be produced by Rick Rubin, who became a constant behind the boards after helping propel RHCP to mainstream success with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik but took their last album off. (The uncharacteristically subdued The Getaway, which came out in 2016, was produced by Danger Mouse.) And most significantly, it’s the first Peppers music in more than 15 years to feature peripatetic and many-gifted guitarist John Frusciante, who was so over life as a Pepper after his second uncoupling from the band in 2009 that he skipped that 2012 induction ceremony. If you care about the Chili Peppers—and after all this time, an improbably large number of people still do—you may have found yourself anticipating Unlimited Love with a sense of suspense and curiosity unbecoming a band that by all rights should be washed or disbanded by now.

Given the fruits of the band’s previous unions and reunions with Frusciante, it wasn’t unreasonable to hold out hope for another unsuspected pivot, or at least a late-career renaissance. Frusciante first lent his talents to the group after the 1988 death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, who himself had departed and rejoined the band before his fatal overdose. Frusciante was still a teenager, but what he lacked in lived experience and funk credentials he more than made up for in knowledge of music theory and compositional sophistication. He soon started to put his stamp on the Peppers’ sound.

With drummer Chad Smith recruited to replace Jack Irons, the foursome of Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Frusciante, and Smith made Mother’s Milk, the band’s first gold record and its first tentative shift toward a softer, more melodic, and more commercially successful sound. Second single “Knock Me Down,” a Slovak-inspired Frusciante-Kiedis cowrite about turning to friends in times of need, has been hailed as a turning point for its lyrical content, but the song still sounds more or less like the old Peppers. “Pretty Little Ditty,” an aptly titled instrumental featuring Frusciante’s dreamy guitar and Flea’s trumpet, was more indicative of the sonic metamorphosis to come. Follow-up album Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the Chilis’ big breakthrough: Rubin replaced heavy-metal man Michael Beinhorn as producer, and the Peppers’ sound expanded to include soft, sad, acoustic earworms like “I Could Have Lied,” “Breaking the Girl,” and no. 2 hit “Under the Bridge,” a ballad about drugs, loneliness, and Los Angeles that created a template for the likes of “My Friends,” “Scar Tissue,” and “Californication” to come.

Smith was behind the skins to stay, but the guitarist carousel kept circling. Disillusioned with life as a rock star and dealing with a heroin addiction and depression, Frusciante departed the band in 1992 and spent the next several years battling multiple addictions and sporadically releasing aggressively non-mainstream solo albums. Without him, his old bandmates—who each suffered from their own issues with substance misuse—made the maligned-at-the-time One Hot Minute (1995) with former Jane’s Addiction shredder Dave Navarro, who was fired in 1998.

By then, Frusciante was physically rehabilitated and spiritually reborn, and he was invited back to the band. Another immensely productive period followed, as Frusciante pushed the Peppers’ production palette to a 24 tracks over a trilogy of increasingly lengthy, layered, and ornate opuses: the 15-track, 56-minute Californication (1999), the 16-track, 68-minute By the Way (2002), and the 28-track, 122-minute double album Stadium Arcadium (2006), all of which went multiplatinum. Frusciante exited again a few years later, citing exhaustion exacerbated by being “deep into the occult.” Over the next decade, Frusciante made more of his largely inaccessible (and increasingly electronic) solo albums while the Peppers pumped out a couple of competent records in the melodic mold with their fifth recording guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer.

In 2016, my colleague Rob Harvilla described Klinghoffer’s vibe in a recent “Carpool Karaoke” appearance as “chilling in the backseat in sunglasses, keeping his trap shut, very pleased that no one forcibly opens his door and pushes him out into traffic.” In late 2019, the band abruptly opened that door to jettison Klinghoffer and readmit Frusciante, whose seat Klinghoffer was seemingly semi-aware he was warming all along. While we can acknowledge that the unceremonious sacking sucked for Klinghoffer (who now plays with Pearl Jam), few fans of the band were sorry to see him give way to the Pepper That Was Promised. Frusciante’s reputation and plus-minus as a member of the band are so sterling that the news of his latest team-up with Kiedis, Flea, and Smith kindled dreams of another stylistic evolution that would propel the Peppers to new heights.

Thus far, the third time is not nearly as charming as the first two, which isn’t to say this stint is charmless. Frusciante’s return to rock mode offers a few thrills, and as always, the Peppers synthesize their plainly labeled influences into a sound that’s all their own. (A fan of this band never needs more than a few seconds of sound to match the musical fingerprints of Flea, Frusciante, or Kiedis.) But the songs aren’t as strong or distinctive as they have been on the band’s best albums, and as always, too many of them made the cut. Contra the title and track list, my love for the album is limited, though it doesn’t diminish my affection for the instantly identifiable music these four forever-irreverent almost–senior citizens make.

Say this about Unlimited Love: The low points are higher than on almost any other album by the band. You can count on the Peppers for a few persuasive skip candidates even on their best albums, but no major misses stand out this time. The catch is that there aren’t that many standouts on the other side of the quality continuum, either. Unlimited Love is, surprisingly, kind of consistent, which is not necessarily a compliment when it comes to this band.

The Chilis have sounded like so many different bands from decade to decade (or album to album, or sometimes song to song on the same album), that I should probably specify my preferred Peppers sound, just so you can calibrate where I’m coming from. In my mind, the Peppers peaked with 2002’s By the Way, a 16-song symphony of melody, harmony, and euphoric choruses for which Frusciante fully took the reins. You could (convincingly) argue that believing By the Way to be the best Chili Peppers record is a major misread of the band; it’s certainly not the album that best encapsulates their signature sound, that sold the best or produced their biggest hit, or that most dramatically altered their trajectory. Maybe my love for By the Way stems partly from the fact that it came out when I was 15—the band was, um, only 18—but I’d argue that their most funk-free album is also their most free of filler, a hazard that no RHCP record has wholly escaped. (“We always put a bunch of shit around the good stuff,” Smith has said.) It’s the happy medium and sweet spot between the ear-bleedingly bad mastering of Californication and the excesses of Stadium Arcadium. I can nitpick parts (or possibly swaths) of those surrounding albums, but about By the Way I have almost no notes; I’m addicted to the shindig. (For what it’s worth, “By the Way” was the first song RHCP performed at their Rock Hall induction.)

By the Way’s departure from the past is what makes it the Peppers’ apotheosis; it’s one of the wonders of the modern musical world that the same band (if not all of the same members) made both By the Way and RHCP’s mid-’80s output. The first time I saw RHCP perform—on a double bill with Foo Fighters, another band that refuses to add a much-needed definite article to their name—they covered both “Tiny Dancer” and “What is Soul?”, which was pretty representative of a shape-shifting band that’s written and recorded with Elton John and been produced by George Clinton.

That, to me, is the magic of Red Hot Chili Peppers: As Kiedis recently said, “We were never against trying anything, and that still goes.” Everyone remembers the Blood Sugar Sex Magik song “Sir Psycho Sexy” because it’s called “Sir Psycho Sexy” and because it concerns traffic-stop sex with an easily seduced cop—which, admittedly, are two indelible details. But I remember it most for Frusciante’s cleansing coda, a wordless, gorgeous piece of sound that has no business being part of the same song as the six minutes that precede it. Many musicians can be cringy and raunchy, and many can write sweet songs that sit at the intersection of psychedelia and power pop, but few other bands can combine both and somehow make it sound as if it wasn’t the worst idea (or that it was but worked anyway).

In their younger days, the Peppers would at minimum have dubbed this release Unlimited Lovin’, if not something a good deal less subtle than that. Kiedis’s silly-sounding in-song sex talk and over-the-top titles, longstanding sources of facepalms and humor about the band, are easier to stomach when one is less aware of his real-life actions, which include multiple incidents of sexual misconduct and other disturbing behavior described in his 2004 autobiography. Which isn’t to say that Kiedis has toned down his habitual horniness on the mic after publishing the book; his words still sometimes sound like NC-17 mad libs. On “She’s a Lover,” he promises to “be a torrid beast” should a woman who needs him wake up and squeeze him, while on “Bastards of Light” he sings, “When it’s said and done / Can I please make you come?”

The lyrics that aren’t risqué are no less nonsensical—and as usual, they’re amusingly mixed and enunciated in a way that makes them much easier to discern than the messages of more mumbly singers who have something insightful to say. The chorus of “The Great Apes,” to select one inscrutable passage among many, is a master class in Kiedis:

All of my love and half my kisses
Superstar don’t do the dishes
I just want the great apes to be free
Come on now you lazy cowboy
Heads or tails but not right now boy
I just want the great apes to be free

To the extent that I take a position concerning the status of the great apes, I wouldn’t wish captivity upon them either, but I fail to follow the train of thought. It only accentuates the absurdity that Kiedis, who sometimes seems to be in on the joke, evidently toils over lines that never stop sounding like free-associated first drafts. Of “Aquatic Mouth Dance,” whose chorus repeats “Aquatic Mouth Dance is waiting for you,” Kiedis says he “sat with that song for months before I knew what the hell I was supposed to do [with the lyrics]”; of the first single, “Black Summer,” he confesses, “I spent many hours driving around until those particular words filled the void.” A few of the words that surfaced during that crisis of the soul: “Platypus are a few, the secret life of Roo” and “My Greta weighs a ton, the archers on the run.” Kiedis sings the last of those lines like a pirate, a feature of the album opener that makes sense only if the band had booked studio time on International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19, which would fit the production timeline). As a melody-over-lyrics person, I’m grateful to the Peppers for providing a reductio ad absurdum argument in favor of my stance: Lyrics can’t matter as much as music, or no one would listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers.

It’s often said that Kiedis is a top-tier front man and maybe a more-than-decent vocalist, but not a strong singer. I’d contend that he’s all of the above. No, he’s not always in key, as he repeatedly reminds us on Unlimited Love’s “White Braids & Pillow Chair.” But his voice is extremely distinctive (half the battle for a lead singer), uncommonly mellow, and still seemingly as smooth and supple as it was when he first embarked on balladry. His famously front-and-center physique hasn’t aged, either, maybe because certain standards must be maintained when one belongs to a band whose brand is shirtlessness. On piano number “Not the One,” he laments, “I don’t look like myself in photographs / Long days of time have been unkind,” but based on the “Black Summer” video, he’s still keeping it plenty tight enough that he doesn’t need to pack much clothing for his forthcoming concerts. (Q: What does Anthony Kiedis never say when he’s getting dressed? A: Get on, top.) Say what you will about his LEGO-man mullet, but the dude looks great for 59.

The first two times Frusciante entered the lineup, the Peppers pushed forward. This time, they harken back to essentially the same sound they employed on earlier releases, albeit significantly stripped down. There are ample pleasures to be found on the 17-track, 73-minute marathon, a streaming-era throwback anachronistically tailored to the capacity of a compact disk. (The shortest, last, and gentlest song, the acoustic “Tangelo,” runs 3:37.) There just aren’t many moments of uplifting transcendence. A few songs—“Black Summer,” “Here Ever After,” “These Are the Ways”—possess the soaring, hooky choruses that this quartet tossed off effortlessly at the turn of the century, but others (“Aquatic Mouth Dance,” “Poster Child”) blend together or last a verse or two too long.

Some of the restrained, midtempo tracks are rescued or elevated only by the interplay between Flea and Frusciante and the latter’s inventive leads, economical solos, and array of spacey synths, chiptune-y touches, and guitar-effect flourishes. (“I could’ve used a little more Frusciante” is always a smart note.) The band saves what may be its best for second to last: Penultimate track “The Heavy Wing” is a five-and-a-half-minute buildup to a full-band workout in which Kiedis and Frusciante trade impassioned vocals as the instrumental section wilds out. Unlimited Love could have used more of that brief frenzy: It’s not a low-energy album, but the band’s joy about being back together doesn’t come across as clearly as one would’ve hoped. At the end of “Aquatic Mouth Dance,” an unenthused voice in the studio says, “That was pretty good.” If you’re feeling generous, you could say the same of Unlimited Love, but it would be tough to be effusive. “Our laws are breaking and no physics can define us,” Kiedis sings on “Let ’Em Cry,” but for the first time with Frusciante in the fold, the Chilis sound like they’re abiding by old rules.

As is often the case, the Chilis wrote and recorded much more music than they ended up using, and it sounds as if a second record from the same sessions (or another broadside of unreleased songs) could come out soon. If these were the choicest cuts, it’s hard to imagine the less primo material bowling anyone over, but maybe Unlimited Love was the throat-clearing prelude to a less safe-sounding sequel. Regardless, the long-lived group’s legacy already defies comparison: Few bands that took as long to find their final form seized the spotlight so forcefully and refused to relinquish it for so long. The Peppers’ studio discography is now split evenly between records featuring Frusciante and records featuring his predecessors and successors, and it’s still clear where the highlights lie. There’s no telling whether Frusciante’s renewed enthusiasm and tolerance of touring will stick, but even if he and his unabashed bandmates don’t find higher ground, their Red Hot recycling will be worth a listen for as long as the licks last.