No less than 5 years after their last release, The Red Hot Chili Peppers are back this month with a new album, I’m With You, which should no doubt satisfy hungry fans.
But how does the album fare minus long-time guitarist John Frusciante, who officially left the band back in 2009?
Throughout the years, The Red Hot Chili Peppers have undergone changes and reinventions aplenty whilst always keeping their own brand of funky rock perfectly intact. The biggest switch came in 1999 with the release of hit album Californication which showed the band in a darker, more melancholic light. This meant the usual anarchic fast-paced funkiness increasingly gave way to an altogether more atmospheric and melodic approach. This was clearly the beginning of a new era for the band. The next album, By The Way, really made the most of Frusciante’s creativity and excelled especially with some of the best, most nostalgic ballads the band ever attempted. The album showed real heart and maturity but it was a love it or hate it affair proving too lyrical for some. Generally though, it was another hit.
Then came double-whammy Stadium Arcadium which offered not one but two discs shock full of red hot goodies. And although the double album was a good enough listen on the whole it just didn’t seem to add much to the band’s new style and felt perhaps a little too mellow with both discs sounding pretty similar to each other in terms of tone. It was good music but the songs relied too much on their catchy choruses and with discs grandly entitled Mars and Jupiter it all felt a tad underwhelming. Fans knew the band could do better.
So here we finally have the follow up: I’m With You. The initial disappointment of John Frusciante’s departure aside, this could have potentially been a good thing for the band and given the guys a chance to reinvent themselves once more into something fitting the screeching swagger of new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. Something darker, edgier perhaps? Actually, even the old, iconic Red Hot Chili Peppers logo made an appearance in the run-up to the album’s release. First single The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie showed promising signs of a new, perhaps grungier direction with Klinghoffer’s fresh sound adding welcome attitude to a song which, besides feeling perhaps a tiny bit too long, was good enough to generate a lot of interest and high hopes for the new album.
It is surprising, then, that after all these changes taking place over the course of 5 whole years, that I’m With You doesn’t feel more different and groundbreaking than it does. Listening to it, there’s definitely some great Peppers songs there with the likes of Monarchy Of Roses and Did I Let You Know proving to be more than worthy additions on a par with some of their best work on By The Way. There’s also a more experimental feel to the whole thing with a lot more piano (played by both Flea and Klinghoffer), some trumpets, a country-style song (Happiness Loves Company) and even a rap. That said, the band never seems ready to take a huge experimental leap and instead of a complete reboot we get a mild re-tweaking of their now very familiar style introduced back in 1999. Klinghoffer does extremely well to fit in but songs like The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie or Police Station beg for Frusciante’s backing vocals. Aside from being one of the best, most creative guitar players out there, it should be noted that Frusciante is also a great vocalist and his unique voice has elevated numerous songs on By The Way and Stadium Arcadium to above average status. A song like Brendan’s Death Song, for example, lacks the emotional punch that Frusciante could have no doubt brought to it. For fans of the man’s solo albums, it’s a given that his voice as well as his music were a key factor of the band’s latest approach. So yes, Klinghoffer is a perfectly fine presence in I’m With You and does a great job but Frusciante is nevertheless missed throughout.
I’m With You could have been so much more fun. Songs like Look Around or Ethiopia do very well to generate some of the old Peppers “grooves” but the album still has a mellow feel to it which gives it a familiarity we could have probably done without just this once. All that said, no one writes a catchy chorus like these guys and no matter how cryptically the song begins you can be sure you’ll be mumbling all these choruses to yourself throughout the day regardless of how good the songs actually are. Barring a couple of non-events, I’m With You is a fine album: a mix of more of the same and some hit-and-miss experiments (Dance, Dance, Dance) with a couple of golden nuggets here and there. It’s uneven stuff but fans and non-fans alike should enjoy it regardless.
We’ll have to wait either for John Frusciante’s return or for the band to give Josh Klinghoffer more freedom to bring the edge back it seems if we’re going to get the fresh re-invention we were promised. For now though, I’m With You is a fair one to check out, it won’t blow you away but just be happy the band made it through and are back in business.
Welcome home fellas.