It’s been almost seven months since the release of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You, but only now is the disappointment setting in, thanks to an A.V. Club article that forced me to confront my true feelings about the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees’ long-awaited follow-up to the stellar Stadium Arcadium.
About a month ago, A.V. Club staff members weighed in on the first time they were let down by art, be it a movie, book, or record. Among the disappointers were Ghostbusters II, U2’s Rattle and Hum, Back to the Future III, Beverly Cleary’s “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” and surprisingly even The Empire Strikes Back.
The question prompting the discussion came from A.V. Club reader Isaiah, who wrote:
When Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You came out, I was disappointed to the point where I began hoping they’d just break up so I could treasure Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication without having them be tarnished by later albums. So it makes me wonder, what was the first piece of entertainment by an artist you loved that greatly disappointed you?
While I agree with Isaiah in that I, too, was frustrated to wait five years after the masterful Stadium for a musically strong-but-still-somewhat- lacking effort by one of my favorite groups, a breakup would rule out any chance of redemption, or, if not a complete return to form, then at least another chance for improvement. But at this point, is it even worth hoping for such a thing?
Now, it’s not like I’m With You is a total dud — in fact, it was generally rated well among music critics upon its release — but having been an ardent listener since 1999’s Californication, as well as the classic Blood Sugar before that, there definitely feels like a lack of depth on this album, a depth that was so present throughout its best previous work.
One might blame this lack on new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who replaced the virtuosic John Frusciante after his departure from the band in 2009, thus leaving a huge void in the band’s sound. Without Frusciante’s intricate guitar playing, without his wall of lush harmonies, the Chili Peppers would cease to be the Chili Peppers, or so it would seem. But Klinghoffer — who is actually a good friend and long-time collaborator of Fruscinate’s — adds his own distinct flourishes to the group, be it his aggressive playing (“The Adventures of Raindance Maggie”), his tasteful use of interesting guitar effects (“Factory of Faith”) or his not-quite-as-powerful-as-Frusciante’s-but-still-strong vocal harmonies (“Meet Me at the Corner”). And even live, there are times when Klinghoffer sounds stronger (see solo) on the songs Frusciante wrote than Frusciante himself.
So I guess that rules out Josh.
Another possibility is the ever-steady rhythm section of Flea and Chad Smith, but listening to the 7/4 groove of “Ethiopia” and the hectic outro of “Brendan’s Death Song” (which is by the far the album’s best song), one can quickly discern that all is well with the backing band. More than that, things may never have been better, at least from a technical standpoint.
So that rules out Chad and Flea.
Could it be that I’m With You falters because of the voice of the band, the co-founder, the lyricist and, for all intents and purposes, the leader of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Could Anthony Kiedis be the main reason I’m With You falls flat? Sadly, I think so. But he’s not the only perpetrator.
Kiedis’ brand of hard-to-interpret-yet-somehow-meaningful-stream-of-consciousness spoutings have been at the root of the band’s success since the beginning. A his best, the dada-esque ramblings can be near perfect — “Give It Away,” “Can’t Stop,” “Scar Tissue” — and the seemingly personal yet vague croonings can be incredibly resonant — “Tear,” “Otherside,” “Wet Sand” — even if they don’t make perfect sense. What his best songs lyrics have in common is their ability to find order in chaos, to find a message where there might not be one. Somehow, this is missing for much of I’m With You.
It would be impractical to link to lyrics of each song, but consider “Factory of Faith” as an example of this perceived shortcoming:
All my life I was swinging for the fence,
I was looking for the triple,
Never playing good defense
Gunnin’ for the glitter,
Every hot and heavy hitter,
She was never really there so I couldn’t really get her.
Also consider “Ethiopia”:
E I o I e I a
When you give your love away,
You get a feeling for…
E I o I e I a
Live to love another day,
Even when you feel unsure.
Lame baseball references and an afro-pop rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”? What the hell?
For a 49 year old who’s penned songs like “Breaking the Girl,” “Porcelain,” “Death of a Martian“(I could list for hours), these and other lyrics on the album seemed half-assed, especially considering the long gap in between albums. I would’ve liked to think that such a prolific lyricist would have more to say after five years of relative silence. That’s what disappointed me the most: the lack of thought and imagination that pervades I’m With You.
Also worth noting are Kiedis’ intermittent “woohs,” “ha-has,” “come-ons,” so on and so forth, at various instrumental breaks are completely unnecessary. Please, just let the guitars do the talking. It’s not like a “haha” will enhance solo — it will only annoy certain listeners (like me). And no, this doesn’t apply to the beginning of “Around the World“; the “woohing” is necessary here.
Kiedis shouldn’t be solely to blame. The rhythm section may be mechanically on par as ever, but just as Kiedis’ lyrics suffer from deficient artistic musing, so, too, do the songs lack depth. The Chilis may not be on the forefront of musical exploration — or even considered progressive, for that matter — but they still found a way to weave in some mystery and psychedelia (see “Road Trippin‘” and “Warm Tape” for starters) to balance their slap-bass-driven funk. On I’m With You, though, the veneer is gone. Sure, there’s the occasional atmospheric interlude — the strongest of which being the bridge on “Meet Me at the Corner,” sung by Klinghoffer — but those are few and far between. If anything, the band should’ve utilized Klinghoffer’s ethereal more, which he’s shown in his previous work alongside Frusciante, as well as his stint as the keyboardist for Gnarles Barkley. Instead, Klinghoffer’s cerebral tendencies are drowned by uninspired lyrics and uninteresting song structures, two things that I didn’t used to associate with the band — that is, until this album.
If the Chili Peppers decided to hang it up after this, they would still have a place cemented among the greatest bands of this generation. They’ve sold 70 million albums worldwide, won six Grammys, and hold the record for most songs to reach number one on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart with 12. Heck, they’re even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What more could a band want? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what more could fans want of a band?
When By the Way and Stadium Arcadium came out in 2002 and 2006 respectively, I remember each occasion as the cornerstone of that summer. With By the Way, I rode my bike around the streets of Billings, Mont., listening to “Venice Queen,” “Dosed,” and “Zephyr Song” on a CD player in my pocket; with Stadium, I remember driving the same streets with my friends, gearing up for graduation and a new life in college. But there wasn’t that connection with I’m With You — not in August, and not now. I would like to think that four or five years would bring another album on par with By the Way and Stadium, but maybe Isaiah’s right: Maybe I should treasure those albums as they are and not necessarily hold the band’s future work by that standard, because I will most likely be disappointed.
So if the next album is a return to form, if the songs are as thoughtful and poignant and meaningful as they once were, that would be great; it may even make I’m With You seem better in retrospect, like an essential part of the band’s evolution, the One Hot Minute before the Californication.
But if it isn’t, I can remember Kiedis’ own words on the powerful “Brendan’s Death Song”:
Way back when
Will never be again,
It was a time.