This being a more fractured year for me than 2020, I'm still playing catch-up with the major bands who put out new material this year and that's why I'm reviewing the Chili Peppers's twelfth album right before they release their thirteenth. This is Unlimited Love, released in April, and Return of the Dream Canteen, due in mid-October, was recorded during the same sessions. Given that this is already seventy plus minutes in length, that means that they must have seriously felt the urge to create during that pesky COVID period of potential downtime.
They seemed like the logical contrast to follow Dir en Grey, because they're complete opposites in so many ways. In particular, they're almost comfort food. Dir en Grey are complex and ambitious, a band to listen to actively to figure out what they're doing on any particular song and whether that works for us or not. The Chili Peppers are chill music, easy listening for the alternative era, and it's fair to say that a new album by them feels comfortable and familiar even on a first listen. It's hard to find a second mood but they're so good at their one mood that it doesn't matter.
The songs here, and there are no fewer than seventeen of them, merely play with the sliding scale from laid back chill to bouncy chill, and the levels they're happiest with are mostly defined by the first four songs. Calmest is Not the One, which is ocean smooth. Then comes opener Black Summer, the first single, which is Californication-levels of commercial. Here Ever After is funkier, with Flea's bass ratcheting up in prominence and it's natural to move to it. Wildest is Aquatic Mouth Dance, a terminally funky number that continues to build throughout, from Flea's hyperactive lead bass to the layers of experimental brass that show up when he introduces his trumpet.
The big change this time out, because it's been six years since the band's last studio album, is the swapping of guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who had been with them for a decade, for an old favourite. No, not Dave Navarro, who surprisingly only had five years to his name, in but John Frusciante for his third stint. He originally joined in 1988, so he was on their big early albums, Mother's Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, where he strongly influenced a soothing of their sound. He left in 1992 but returned in 1998, for their most successful album, Californication, the logical end to that soothing.
When he left again, in 2009, it was to make electronic music, taking a wild left turn into acid house and other genres. There's an irony in that, even though he spent years as an heroin addict, almost dying because of it, he's far more prolific as a musician than the Chili Peppers themselves, having as many solo albums to his name, plus four more under the name of Trickfinger and a further trio of collaborative releases, including one with Josh Klinghoffer, who both replaced him in this band and who he then replaced in turn.
I wondered how his presence would change the band's sound, given that he absolutely did that on his previous two stints with them. I especially wondered how he'd introduce electronica into their music and I'm surprised to find that it isn't a huge amount, at least at this point. There's some on Poster Child, which is as notable for its sonic backdrop as for Anthony Kiedis's skilful cadence, and Bastards of Light builds out of his keyboards, but he makes his presence far more known on guitar and, quite frankly, he's the best thing about the album.
Remember when I said that everything here shifts up and down a sliding scale from laid back chill to bouncy chill? Well, that's true for the rest of the band, but not for Frusciante. He lets his guitar rip on The Great Apes, wail on Watchu Thinkin' and soar on It's Only Natural. He gives serious edge to She's a Lover, which is otherwise routine seventies funk/soul and serious urgency to Bastards of Light and These are the Ways, which are heavier than I remember the Chilis being in forever. Each of these songs sounds good but they're all chill until Frusciante mixes it up.
And now I'm eager to see what they come up with next which is a feeling I haven't felt for decades. The Chilis are one of the easiest bands in the world to like, because everything they do musically is inherently accessible, but we move right along after we hear them and go about our day. Maybe the return of John Frusciante will also return some balls to what they do. The seeds are obvious. I think it's fair to say that the second half of most of these songs is better than the first, when they let him loose. And he's exactly why I'm giving it a 7/10. I'd go with a pleasant but inconsequential 6 otherwise and add that it runs too long.