Thursday, August 25, 2011

Early Review: "I'm With You" puts the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the masterpiece business

Album Rating: A

Speaking about the unorthodox cover to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album, I’m With You, lead singer Anthony Kiedis stated “It's an image. It's art. Iconic. We didn't give it its meaning but it's clearly open to interpretation.”  Knowing how, well, silly the Peppers can be sometimes, I wondered if a fly perched on a pill could possibly relate to the actual album (I’m specifically thinking of how the planetary theme for Stadium Arcadium had absolutely nothing to do with the music).  After listening to I’m With You – set for release on August 29th but available to stream for free on iTunes up until that date – however, I think the meaning is fairly clear.  Flies symbolize death; they follow it, they prey on it, they exist because of it.  Pills symbolize healing, but more importantly, they indicate that something is wrong with our bodies, usually that we are getting old.  So we have a fly, an indicator of death, perched on a pill, an indicator of illness.  It’s an extremely apt image for an album that is, at its core, a meditation on life and death, related from the point-of-view of a group that has become fully cognizant of life’s finite nature.  But it’s not all dark – after all, that pill has the words “I’m With You” stamped on it, and this is where the message shines clearest: life is hard, we need medication, the flies are coming for all of us, but nevertheless: I’m With You.

This unifying and powerful message makes I’m With You the band’s most thematically coherent and musically rewarding work since their groundbreaking 1991 masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magik.  Nothing they do will ever surpass that particular album, but I’m With You is still an incredible masterwork in its own unique ways – the Peppers haven’t been this red hot in a long while.

Read the entire review, with a track-by-track breakdown, after the jump…

Despite the absence of long-time guitarist John Frusciante, I’m With You really feels like a natural extension of the sound the Peppers have been honing over their last few albums – and by extension, I mean improvement.  When one thinks of the Peppers post-Magik, there are so many different musical elements we associate with the group: their original funk sound, their more modern balladry, lyrical maturity, raps, straight rock and roll, etc, and with the possible exception of 1999 comeback record Californication, which caught the group in a transitory period, the Peppers have struggled to put all their varied musical ambitions into one musically cohesive package.  Stadium Arcadium has tons of great songs, but it’s also all over the map, and there’s no real justification for why these numbers all belong together.  Still, it was a step in the right direction from the slow and meandering By the Way – which somehow managed to make Kiedis’ vocals sound dull and buried Flea’s bass so far down that it was unrecognizable – and I’m With You takes another leap forward, showcasing an extremely unified sound.  Funk, rap, rock, and flowing balladry can all co-exist in perfect harmony on this album; a song may start with a flashback to the Sex Magik days only to deliver something brand new moments later, but all of these jumps sound organic and, more importantly, invigorating.

All four members of the band have spent the last few months talking about how much they love the new album and what a rejuvenating, meaningful experience it was for them; I get a sense that this is more than empty hype – the Peppers really are excited for the world to hear their new songs, and this music is near and dear to their hearts.  This comes across not only in their lyrics, all of which are as personal, penetrating, and meaningful as “Under the Bridge” (a significant turning point for the band found on Blood Sugar Sex Magik), but also in their playing.  Chad Smith’s drumming is forceful, dynamic, and full of character, and I was amazed at how often he steals the show.  Flea’s bass is finally returned to a higher spot in the mix (yay!), right where he belongs, and he’s accordingly given plenty of spotlight moments to prove that he really is rock’s best bassist.  As a vocalist, Kiedis has gotten better and better with every record they’ve ever done, and he blew me away once more here; he can rap just as impressively as he could twenty years ago while effortlessly switch into his beautiful ballad voice, showcasing amazing range along the way.  Kiedis injects so much energy and passion into these songs, and it’s easy to tell how much enthusiasm he has for these lyrics.

But the man of the hour this time is new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer.  I’ll say this upfront – Klinghoffer is not necessarily a more talented guitarist than Frusciante (filling that order may have been impossible), but he’s undoubtedly a better fit for the band at this point in their careers.  It’s been well documented that although Frusciante and the others had a relatively harmonious relationship, his musical interests often differed from those of his band-mates, and this may have contributed to some of the unevenness on their last two albums.  Klinghoffer’s style and ambitions, on the other hand, mesh perfectly with what the other three bring to the table, and he reinvigorates the band while complementing their own well-established styles.  In addition to some mighty impressive guitar work, Klinghoffer also sings background vocals on a number of tracks, and I like the counterpoint his voice (which sounds eerily similar to the lead singer for MGMT) creates with Kiedis.  He has an obvious chemistry with his bandmates, one that contributes greatly to the sense of musical unity found on the album, and I can’t wait to see this line-up in concert.  Considering what happened the last time the band had to replace Frusciante, Klinghoffer’s hiring may be nothing short a miracle.

I’m going to go through all the songs in greater detail in a moment, but suffice it to say, I’m With You is a total blast to listen to.  The band is in top form, no two songs sound exactly alike, Rick Rubin’s production is as brilliant as ever, and the album’s sequencing is really strong, maintaining momentum from start to finish. 

But I’m picky about my albums – I don’t just want the music to sound good, I want there to be something meaningful under the surface, and that’s where I’m With You really excels.  This is c an album sung from the perspective of men in a mid-life crisis, seeing friends dying or ruining their lives all around them, and every song is a different examination of the feelings these situations create.  Death is an ever-present theme, but so is love, and not the kind of fleeting, bubblegum romance we’re used to hearing about.  Monogamy, commitment, and what it means to really be “with” someone is another major focal point, and through these 14 songs, the band weaves a very poignant musical tapestry, one that is deeply personal but also accessible.  If you’re willing to be an active listener, I’m With You is an endlessly rewarding and enriching experience; just as Blood Sugar Sex Magik took a powerful and unflinching look at the highs and lows of young adults behaving badly, I’m With You is a meditation about what it means to be alive in a world where death and betrayal are ever-present.  That, to me, makes it the best album the Peppers have delivered in the last twenty years.

I wouldn’t normally do this with an album review, but these songs are all so strong that I’d like to share some specific thoughts on each track:

1. Monarchy of Roses: Here’s how I started my notes: Holy sweet Jesus is this a good opening to an album.  And I meant it.  This song is just insanely catchy and engaging, and I know I’m probably beating the Blood Sugar comparisons into the ground at this point, but it drew me into the album just as forcefully as “Power of Equality.”  This track showcases some fantastic Rick Rubin production and effects without going too far, and musically, it’s a wonderful mesh of their funk, rock, and ballad sensibilities (much like the lead single, Rain Dance Maggie).  Album intros don’t get any better than this; all bitterness we may have about the band’s five-year absence is washed away by the time we hit the chorus.  The only problem in hitting things off with such a strong start is that “Roses” threatens to overshadow the rest of the record, but once they hit the next track, that fear also dissipates. 

2. Factory of Faith: This song keeps the momentum going after “Roses” by opening with an awesome, classic Flea bass line that continues through the entire piece; it’s so good that if the rest of the song were crap, I’d listen to it for the bass. That’s not the case, however, as we get some great Kiedis wraps for the lyrics, an ultra-catchy chorus, and more great work from Klinghoffer and Smith.  This song sounds like it would be right at home on Californication, but thematically, it’s all about commitment and the meaning of monogamy, making it an integral part of I’m With You.   

3. Brendan’s Death Song:  This beautiful musical eulogy for friend of the band Brendan Mullen isn’t just the best track on I’m With You, it’s one of the Chili Peppers’ all-time greatest songs.  Reportedly, Kiedis walked into the studio on the first day of rehearsals and, upon announcing Brendan’s death to the band, they all began jamming; that jam became “Brendan’s Death Song,” and explains the sense of immediacy and earnestness that defines the track.  The lyrics are simple but moving, and the chorus contains one of the album’s defining lines: “Like I said, you know I’m almost dead, you know I’m almost gone/and when the drummer drums, he’s gunna play my song to carry me along.”  Brilliant, brilliant song, and Klinghoffer’s outstanding acoustic guitar opening is, to me, the moment where he proves his worth as a true Chili Pepper.

4. Ethiopa: Another bit of Flea awesomeness to open the track, and more dark lyrics coming out of “Death Song:” “Tell my boy I love him, tell him so he knows / lost in Ethiopia, walk out in that road.”  I’m not entirely sure what this song means – which, knowing the Peppers, could very well be the point – but it’s atmospheric, wonderfully played (Flea’s bass is briefly upstaged by a great guitar solo from Klinghoffer), and once again, the lyrics bounce around like another instrument, adding extra, infectious rhythm.  This is probably my least favorite song on the album, but I still really, really enjoy it, which should tell you something about the strength of I’m With You.   

5. Annie Wants a Baby: Chad Smith steals the show this time; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the drums really stood out to me on this one, adding a sense of urgency to another very compelling, gorgeous rock-ballad about a woman whose dreams of motherhood can never come true.  I’m fairly sure Annie is supposed to be a drug addict – see lyrics such as:“she had a gold mine, but then she wasted it away” or “Sugar Daddy, love her madly” – and the song is uncompromisingly stark in its depiction of the addiction’s tolls.  It also introduces a lyrical device the album will revisit multiple times of telling a story between an acquaintance and the singer out-of-order, in thematic chunks rather than chronological ones. 

6. Look Around: One of my favorite tracks, and at least half of that is that there’s no gap between Annie and this song.  Mixing tracks together is something the Peppers always used to do, to greatest effect on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, so hearing this prompted me to write the words “Hells yeah!  Hells fucking yeah!” into my notes.  Once the lyrics started, my notes continued thusly: “And it’s rap!  With a funky bass line!  I am so happy!”  Indeed, all is right with the world while enjoying this song; the rap portions feature crazy-good wordplay, the chorus is yet another winner, and the entire band is in top form.  It’s also perfectly sequenced on the album; I love Annie, but the record would lose momentum if things didn’t immediately get more upbeat.  

7. The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie: I reviewed this song at length when it was released as the album’s lead-single, and it’s still just as great as ever.  Even better actually, both because the song has become on of my all-time favorite Chili Peppers tracks over the last month, and by virtue of the wonderful songs surrounding it.  Nevertheless, I still have no idea what the hell the song is about. 

8. Did I Let You Know (This I Know): Have I mentioned how much I love the lyrics on this album?  If I hammered the point home enough, this track is another piece of vivid poetry, wonderfully sung by Kiedis with lots of assistance from Klinghoffer.  It’s also got a fantastic trumpet solo in the middle, one of my favorite guitar parts on the album (listen to the right channel), and some extra percussion that creates a unique, compelling atmosphere.  With the key lyric being “This I know, we’re not alone (take me home),” one could interpret this as a look at spirituality, but I think it’s more likely a statement about how fundamental friendship and romance are to human nature (which is, after all, a favorite topic of the band). 

9. Goodbye Hooray: This song starts crazy and stays insane; it’s intense, a little bit angry, and always passionate.  A bitter break-up jam, the verses are pseudo-raps again, with darker lyrics like “good things come to those who wait, like an expiration date.”  It’s almost as though the singer is celebrating the end of the relationship, which is a very interesting dynamic.  It also features what might be my favorite Klinghoffer moment on the album, an ultra-distorted extended solo so compelling and fierce that the song actually takes a brief break after Klinghoffer’s finished to let the listener decompress before the band tears back into the chorus. 

10. Happiness Loves Company:  A keyboard and drum march opens this track, a perfect complement to the abrupt ending of the last piece.  Of all the songs on the album, this is Chad Smith’s brightest moment; his intense drumming gives the piece such an amazing pulse that everything else is just icing on the cake.  But it’s very tasty icing, and I especially love how the extremely rhythmic lyrics take their cues from the drum, staying rigid and forceful when the beats are their most concentrated, then loosening up as Chad Smith goes crazy with the rest of his drum set. 

11. Police Station: After five upbeat, fast songs, this one finally slows the album down, and at the perfect time, too.  It’s another beautiful song that shows remarkable lyrical maturity and ingenuity.  It’s about a man who sees that his former lover (or friend) has fallen into prostitution, and while mourning, he also remembers many of their good-times together.  If the lyrics and Kiedis’ impeccable delivery weren’t so haunting, Klinghoffer would steal this whole song thanks to some great guitar work and a fantastic, haunting piano break at the beginning and end (Klinghoffer provides keyboards on the album). 

12. Even You Brutus: One of the more intriguing tracks on the album, a betrayal epic driven by an enraged, bellowing rap.  It gets better and better as it goes along, and because it’s a relatively stripped-down song, you can pick out all the individual contributions quite well.  Klinghoffer’s guitar blew me away yet again in a couple of spots, but if you really want to have some fun, listen to the song concentrating solely on Flea’s infectious bass line.      

13. Meet Me at the Corner: As we reach the home stretch, it’s becoming increasingly apparent the Peppers have crafted a masterpiece with I’m With You.  Case in point: “Meet Me at the Corner” is a heart-wrenching, unflinchingly emotional song about secrets (affairs? Drugs?) destroying a long-standing romance.  The singer feels so guilty that he can’t stand the thought of even a chance encounter with his lost lover, lest he have to relive all his mistakes.  It’s another song that plays with chronology and reflection, and continues Klinghoffer’s hot streak of stealing the show at least once per song (in addition to a great guitar solo, he also sings a verse in the middle).  A very powerful song, both lyrically and musically.  “I messed up on you, and had I known all that I’d do now, I guess we’re through now, receding into the forest, I will lay around and wait…”

14. Dance Dance Dance: The Chili Peppers have often struggled with ending an album – “They’re Red Hot,” closing track to Blood Sugar Sex Magik, is a pretty massive anti-climax, “Death of a Martian” is a terrible ending to Stadium Arcadium, and “Road Trippin’” sent Californication out on a whimper.  “Dance Dance Dance,” on the other hand?  Fan-fucking-tastic!  It’s not a giant, epic closer, but it’s extremely catchy, has a strong air of finality, and most importantly, the lyrics perfectly cap what the entire album has been about.  Kiedis sings of accepting the hardships and difficulties of life, and instead of wallowing in those realities, celebrating with the people who mean the most to us.  Musically, it’s extremely strong, and in an acknowledgment of it being the final track, it starts with a slow build, where each member of the band enters on top of an atmospheric guitar line.  Need further proof that it’s a true Chili Peppers classic?  Flea drives the entire song, and album, home with one last invigorating bass line.  “Give yourself a chance to find a way/the holiness of fate is here to stay.”

It’s a terrific ending to an album I can only describe as a masterpiece.  I’ve listened to I’m With You through in full twice now, and each of the individual songs at least one additional time out of sequence; with each and every listen, my love for the album grows exponentially.  This is such a rich, exciting, and meaningful experience that it demands and rewards repeat listens, and I’m sure it will be in constant rotation on my iPod until the next Chili Peppers album hits.  I’d be thrilled if it doesn’t take another five-years, but whatever the case, I hope this incarnation of the band stays around for a good long while. 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the band that introduced me to the power of music, and listening to them come back with such a strong, personal set of songs is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in a long while.  Music has the power to move us, excite us, make us think, make us cry, make us laugh, invigorate us, and touch us in ways other forms of art never could.  Thank God the Peppers are still around to deliver that full spectrum of emotions to their listeners.

After all, they’re with you. 

I’m With You will be released on CD and Digital Download on Monday, August 29th (a vinyl release is reportedly forthcoming).  It is available right now to stream in full for free on the Red Hot Chili Peppers iTunes page.  The band will be performing the entire album live and in sequence in August 30th from Europe in a performance that will be broadcast in theatres nationwide that evening at 8:00.  

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