Change is a cruel mother, especially among legions of keen music fans. Mark a strong left turn in your musical arc and, nine times out of 10, your goose is cooked. With the release of I’m with You, the legendary Red Hot Chili Peppers are stoking the fires.
The discrepancy isn’t intrinsically drastic, mind you, but there’s an awful lot going on here. This, the band’s first recording since 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, is a layered, intricate, lyrically-dense album that is still instantly listenable and funky as all hell. But it’s a grower.
With the departure of guitarist John Frusciante in 2009, the Peppers said goodbye to their longest-standing line-up and hello to ambiguity. Like the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones, they faced a junction and a judgment. Was it time to hang up the socks for good? Or is the spirit too strong with these ones?
Enter new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, a friend of Frusciante’s and a touring session musician of repute. His playing is expressive and refined, relying less on agitating riffs and more on filling in atmospheric spaces.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers would have us consider the band of I’m with You to be a “new band.” In some ways, they are. But there is, without question, a lot of the standard Peppers’ stuff to work with. Flea’s bass playing is spirited and his contributions on piano add to the bigger picture, while vocalist Anthony Kiedis is as robust as ever. Chad Smith’s drums drive things as they should.
What stands at the core of I’m with You is a meditation on life and death. Themes of transience soak in, dwelling in the keystones of each of the 14 songs and bathing the hour-long album with a sense of insistence. Short of being a concept album, it’s not a stretch to say that this is, in fact, a “purpose album.”
Consider “Brendan’s Death Song.” A certain single, this is an acoustic-led elegy to Brendan Mullen. The founder of The Masque, Mullen was one of the first promoters to give the Chilis a shot when he offered Flea and Kiedis an opening spot for the Bad Brains. He was working on a biography of the band when he died suddenly in 2009.
Then there’s “Police Station,” a stirring number filled with emotional symbols. Kiedis swings high and reaches deep while the band pulls in tight around him in support. Piano punches up the shiver-inducing proportion and the song, bold in its examination of the history of the Los Angeles police force, is a history lesson built on heart and soul.
Pieces like the aforementioned pair give the Red Hot Chili Peppers an expressive wisdom that some may not be accustomed to, but I’d argue it’s always been there. What really sets these songs apart, and indeed the entirety of I’m with You, is how the music contributes to the spirits underneath.
There’s more than enough by way of strong-hearted jams and groovy songs, of course. The Chilis play with cat-like reggae on “Did I Let You Know” and the funk fuses with African music on the lovely “Ethiopia,” a song that features a killer Klinghoffer solo. The anthemic “Dance, Dance, Dance” carries an almost U2-feel with its stadium-pleasing atmosphere.
Big as a mountain yet warm as a heartbeat, I’m with You is a step in the right direction for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It marks a transformation for certain, but the expedition, one built with the joyful balance of artistic progress, is well worth the wait.