Dear Red Hot Chili Peppers,
Greetings from a fan! Before I start, let me thank you for the richly-textured, impossibly alive soundtrack you provided for my adolescence through my young adulthood. I haven’t been with you quite since the beginning – you, as a band, have existed longer than me, as a person – but I’ve been eagerly buying your records since I can remember. I love them – cherish them, even. You’ve soundtracked parties for me, long drives through the countryside, hushed listens to BloodSugarSexMagik spent learning where all the bad words were so I could turn down my stereo at just the right time. I even remember driving to a friend’s funeral with “Dosed” playing, and sure, you weren’t singing about that, but it felt like it.
And hey, Peppers, I think you’ve been doing a terrific job all this time. “Too mainstream!”, the fratty punk-funkers protested when you released Californication. “Great songs!”, said I, because I realize that sometimes it’s time for artists to mature a bit, to explore styles. There’re tons of facets of pop music, after all, and you’ve touched upon most of ’em in your career: punk, funk, hip-hop, alt-rock, acoustic ballads, campfire singalongs, summery Beach Boys homages, even ska. You’ve channeled the greats while forging a sound all your own, and I respect that. Kinda love it, in fact. So allow me, guys, to articulate to you why – and it hurts to say this to you guys specifically – your new record, I’m With You, leaves me cold.
But first, let’s talk about what’s good. First and foremost, you guys are unimpeachable as musicians. Flea, Chad Smith – you’ve got the tightest rhythm section in rock, bar none. You’ve held a monopoly on that, in fact, ever since you’ve been playing together. Anthony Keidis – I like your vocals a lot. You’re a good vocalist without being showy, I think – your singing doesn’t scream “technical mastery”, but it’s not amateurish. You’ve got a strong baritone and I’ve always appreciated your phrasing, the way you sing stuff. And Josh Klinghoffer, I’ll be real with you: I balked at the prospect of RHCP going John Frusciante-less again, but I’m sold, man. You’ve got an individual style that nevertheless doesn’t stray too far from what John did – you’re a little bit funkier, a little more prone to finding the groove, where John seemed preoccupied with beauty and creating pretty guitar lines, but I think your styles aren’t so wildly different that your playing is jarring. And, just like John, you bring the vocal harmonies, something I’ve come to hold very dear to my heart since Californication.
So why doesn’t this all gel into a pleasant listening experience? Well, quite frankly, guys, this seems like Chili Peppers by numbers to me. The skill’s all in place – you guys remain meticulous about keeping every note in place, and about tightening the screws more and more with each album – but it never adds up to anything. Anthony, quite frankly, I never know what you’re singing about here. And, honestly, I only did about half of the time before – but, even when I didn’t, I felt like I did, because the music sold it. The restless experimentation isn’t here; there’s nothing here I haven’t heard on other RHCP records. There’s no sense of wonder, of discovery. I’ve been listening to it over and over, in fact, and I still can’t pick out individual songs. Oh, sure, there’s “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” which I can pick out when it’s on, but I can never quite remember the melody. And you guys flirt with being funky again on “Ethiopia,” but it doesn’t so much groove as it does limp to the finish, although it starts out very promising. Really, the only thing that I think comes close to capturing your restless spirit is “Goodbye Hooray” – the chorus sticks in the craw, Chad and Flea are really allowed to do their thing (there’s some nasty bass in there, man – cheers to that), and there’s even an ethereal Floyd-y bridge, something that doesn’t seem like familiar, rote territory for you. Great job on that tune, guys, and I’ll even give you points for the following track, “Happiness Loves Company” – that peppy, staccato piano sounds like a great fit for you guys, and I love the vocal harmonies and its Beatles-by-way-of-Ben-Folds spirit.
See, I still appreciate what you guys do. There are great songs nestled deep in this album; the problem is, it sounds like your inspiration is only sporadic. I noticed it a bit on Stadium Arcadium, but wrote it off as the curse of the double album. I’m With You is a different beast entirely, though – it’s a parade of humdrum midtempo rockers, the sort of modern-rock mediocrity that you guys always used to give a hearty shot in the arm every few years. With the exception of a handful of bright spots, much of I’m With You seems to blend in with the crowd. And, coming from a band that I always thought was so singular, that’s kinda sad.
I still hold out hope, though. You guys are legends, after all – you’ve made more awesome records than most bands I dig, and besides, you’re way too visionary to churn out mediocrity. I’ll write this one off as a misstep, Chili Peps, but you gotta come harder next time. In conclusion: I’m with you, Peppers. But you’re making it hard to be.