All images courtesy of RHCP Facebook (official)
By Andrew Daly
Back in 2019, like many others, I found myself truly excited when I heard the news of guitarist John Frusciante’s imminent return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At the time, the erstwhile six-stringer had been away from the band for a full decade, and it was all too easy to be swept up and away by nostalgia bred via memories of classic albums such as Mothers Milk (1989), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), Californication (1999), and By the Way (2002).
As many of you may know, however, nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. It can lead us down roads we’ve already traversed, and probably should have mindfully left behind us. For me, Frusciante’s return signifies exactly that, and after listening to the Chili Pepper’s latest effort, Unlimited Love, they too seem to be suffering from that very same malady.
In truth, I should have known better, but time is a funny thing, and sometimes our perceptions of past events can become warped, distorted, and reshaped by their passing. I have vivid memories of Stadium Arcadium’s 2006 release, and I, like many others, became initially enraptured by its windfall. Tracks such as “Snow (Hey Oh),” “Dani California,” and “Tell Me Baby” were big hits, and remain iPod shuffle staples.
While it’s true that Stadium Arcadium had its deep cuts, see “Strip My Mind,” “Wet Sand,” and “Especially In Michigan” as proof of that, what many people don’t recall, and oddly never wanted to admit during the album’s explosive heyday, is that at over two hours long, Stadium Arcadium was loaded with filler bordering on dumpster fodder, see “Hump de Bump,” ‘Warlocks,” and “Hey” as evidence of that.
In my opinion, it was during the Stadium Arcadium era that the Chili Peppers began to become overexposed, or perhaps were simply victims of their success birthed by immense over-saturation. One has to remember that by that juncture, the band was over twenty years in – not young guns by any stretch. With a multitude of material already laid to tape, a retrospective look back reveals the 2006 version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to be a band running on empty, and it shows. Now, was that the product of a relentless touring and album cycle over many years dating back to the early 90s? Perhaps.
I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Regardless of the reason, the end of the Stadium Arcadium era also marked the end of supposed guitar hero, John Frusciante’s second tenure with the Chili Peppers. I say “supposed” with the caveat that I, like many others, once very much enjoyed his playing, but as I said, time has a funny way of changing our perception. Back in 2009, I was disappointed to hear that Frusciante had left the Chili Peppers, but I was also very intrigued to hear that Josh Klinghoffer was to be tabbed as his replacement. That initial intrigue quickly spilled over into full-blown pleasure after my first full listen of the band’s 2011 effort, I’m With You, which served as an incredible follow-up to Stadium Arcadium, and still reads as a much better album.
As I moved through I’m With You, my senses peculated with delight, and I suddenly realized that Frusciante’s leaving wasn’t a curse at all, but a blessing. Tracks such as “Brendan’s Death Song,” “Look Around,” and “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” possessed a fire and throwback simplicity that hadn’t been present for a long time in the Chili Pepper’s music. To me at least, It was clear that Klinghoffer, with his more alternative leanings, was able to bring a renewed edge to the music, and at less than an hour long, I’m With You proved to be a much crisper listen.
Sadly, the follow-up to I’m With You, 2016’s The Getaway, was not as refreshing. Produced by Danger Mouse, the album serves as an oddity and sticks out like a ragged, bloody stump within the band’s varied catalog. I struggled to get through it upon its release and did not attempt any sort of a return geared toward repeated listening. It must be said that this cannot be attributed to the stylings of Klinghoffer, who was reportedly stifled during the album’s creation.
And so, I suppose it wasn’t a complete and utter shock when in 2019 the news broke that after ten years of service, Klinghoffer was unfairly being jettisoned in favor of old friend, John Frusciante, in what can now only be looked back at as a desperate attempt to regain lost relevance. But it must be said, that oftentimes what is lost can never be found, especially in the music business.
So, that brings us up to date in regards to how we got here, but what of this new record, Unlimited Love? For those keeping score, I’ve already made some subtle if not overt allusions to the album’s merit. As such, I’ll save you the suspense – Unlimited Love isn’t very good, and it doesn’t come remotely close to the band’s best records by any measure. Yes, it seems the band is exactly where Frusciante left them in 2009 – creatively dry.
I came across a quote recently regarding the making of Unlimited Love, where the band’s drummer, Chad Smith, quipped, “John wanted to reconnect with the band that he fell in love with,” and vocalist, Anthony Kiedis further elaborated, “With John back in the band, the exercise was about getting back to basics.” Well, if “getting back to basics” means making forgettable records, that are far too long – mission accomplished. Welcome home, John.
Does that seem harsh?
Look, for my money, if we’re talking about a perceived “top-tier band,” that packs the house at the rate and at the prices the Chili Peppers do, then I simply expect, if not demand more than the same one-note fuzzed-out guitar solos, played ad nauseam over the same stolen P-Funk bassline, with half-baked faux-rap, wannabe MC vocals over them. I’ve heard the Chili Peppers at their best, and when it comes to Unlimited Love – especially given the unlimited amount of time they had to put it together – they surely can do better. Much better. Don’t package a half-hearted effort as a reunion-based return to form. It’s about as transparent of a look as there is, and it only serves to further relegate a once triumphant band to a deservedly self-imposed derivative limbo.
In the aftermath of being let go by the band, Klinghoffer gave an interview with Consequence of Sound where he stated, “There is no animosity. It’s absolutely John’s place to be in that band. I’m happy that he’s back with them.” At the time, when I heard that, I didn’t buy it. I figured the guitarist was simply being diplomatic so as to not stir up headlines. Again though, here’s hindsight coming back to clarify things, I think that Klinghoffer did mean it. I think he knew then, what perhaps the rest of us are beginning to realize now – the Red Hot Chili Peppers are spent as a creative force.
In my opinion, Josh Klinghoffer didn’t belong there. It’s not because he couldn’t hang – he could – it’s because with the band creatively run into the ground, what is a young guitarist of his talent doing there? Why should it be his job to try and buoy the fortunes of washed-up has-beens pushing toward, or exceeding the age of sixty? Why should an artist so vibrant, try in vain to make fallen stars shine once more? Even if the members of the Chili Peppers are one’s who still feel the need to parade around as if they are half their age, even if they’re still singing about the same tired themes first brought to our attention in the early 90s as young men, still, you would have thought that somehow, someway, they’d know better by now. I’ll save you the suspense – they don’t.
When it comes to the Chili Peppers, there’s no creativity. There’s no substance. All that remains is torrid redundancy, and boring constructs meant to masquerade as faded, burnt-out glory from the past. By bringing back the imagination starved Frusciante into the fold for the third time, the Chili Peppers are begging for their audience to liken them to their past selves, and simply put, for me – it’s not happening. Frusciante is and always was a one-trick pony, a guitarist whose style is based on failed Hendrix worship meets misdirected Cobain adoration, a mix that might have served the band to a degree during the 90s, but is painfully exposed here in 2022.
Furthermore, Frusciante has failed multiple times as a solo artist to the point he’s tried just about every genre on for size, and couldn’t make a single one fit on his own. To expect him to deliver the band back to prominence at this stage of the game simply isn’t reasonable, and it leaves the members of the Chili Pepper’s playing a fool’s game of Russian Roulette, spinning the chamber of a one-shot-loaded gun, defiantly flexing their tattooed arms to their collective temples, and pulling the trigger.
It’s a game that can only go on for so long, and eventually, this band will meet its maker, come hell or high water. Fans aren’t stupid, and past accomplishments will only get you so far. It’s sad to say that with Klinghoffer aboard, the Chili Peppers had a puncher’s chance at making some interesting music in keeping with their talent, Klinghoffer’s post Chili Peppers work as Plural One is stark evidence of that. Ultimately though, it seems that Flea, Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith, and now, once again, John Frusciante, would rather lean in, buckle up, and double down on old habits, and tired, strung-out, and wasted tricks.
But this time, it isn’t working, and I for one am not buying it.
At nearly seventy-five minutes long, Unlimited Love’s seventeen tracks plod along like a half-cooked slug on sizzling black top, ranging from weird, to bad, to downright (thankfully) forgettable. The album plays just as Stadium Arcadium did – a dead and bloated affair, infested with maggot-ridden, unimaginative ideas, with a few, and I mean a few, interesting moments deliriously peppered in.
I’ll make something clear, I was a fan of this band, and I still hold reverence for what they were, but those days are oh-so-long gone. Sadly, With Unlimited Love, the Red Hot Chili Peppers haven’t just made an overly long, intensely bad album, they’ve managed to bore through the rainbow-colored nostalgia, beat it to a bloodied pulp, and bewilderingly reminded us of what we already knew back in 2009, but for some reason forgot – the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a spent force, and they have been for a long time.
Some things are better left dead, and buried. The past is one of those things, and for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that age-old adage rings painfully true. You probably want a rating. Sure, I’ll give you a rating – Unlimited Love isn’t good, and it’s relatively unlistenable. I give it 1.5 out of 10 stars, with a strong, bulleted notation that I will not be returning for second helpings.