Reunions are tricky. No matter how prepared someone is to see someone else they haven’t seen in years, it’s always a bit awkward at first. How do you start? What are you talking about? And why did it take so long to come back to each other? People can work around the embarrassment for a while, but ultimately the best thing to do is put it all on the table. Talk about the good, bad, and wild things that happened between the last meeting and the new meeting. There will be messy parts, things that can’t be explained, and moments that people want to take back. Even if the whole experience doesn’t have an immediate happy ending, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
It’s the best way to take Unlimited love and, more specifically, the return of John Frusciante to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You could say the multi-talented guitarist helped mature California’s cock rock kings when he joined them in 1989 (age 18, mind you), writing songs with soaring melodies and brilliant solos that made room for the rest of the band to grow. Frusciante has left and now returned to the Chili Peppers twice in different decades and both times the band found themselves searching rather than settling. With Dave Navarro, who replaced Frusicnate from 1993 to 1998, the band attempted to stumble and come to terms with the loss of their friend on the heavy but murky 1995 track. A hot minute. With Josh Klinghoffer, who was promoted from backup touring guitarist to full-time player from 2010 to 2019, the boys began to realize how little time they had left as a band and made up for it by experimenting with arrangements. Stranger (2011’s I am okay) and more contemplative lyrics (2016’s the getaway).
So now with Unlimited love, the reunited Chili Peppers seemingly came up with every idea they could think of. Again produced by Rick Rubin (who skipped over producing the getaway and Danger Mouse filling that void), the band’s 12th record is 73 minutes about four friends solving their problems. No, it’s not the guys who did “Give It Away” trying to be Phish, it’s just the band playing everything they know, no matter if it fits with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” has an eerie Latin beat and groove designed to suit Kiedis’ style of rapping, while “White Braids & Pillow Chair” and “Not the One” are homages to Echo Canyon’s psychedelic sound. in the late 60’s. The first is better than the second, with more relaxed guitar chords and a progression from the snail’s rhythm of the other that puts the listener to sleep.
“Poster Child” might be the jazziest song the Peppers have ever done, thanks to Frusciante’s more subtle guitar work. Its layers of funky notes have Kiedis vocals imitating it with Flea and drummer Chad Smith filling the space with their impeccable rhythmic chemistry. It also goes to show that Kiedis’ singing style may be more influential than we realize, as his wordplay and quixotic delivery can be heard in other quirky modern rappers. “Whatchu Thinkin'” is the most fun the band and the listener have with the album, powered by Kiedis over the beat of Flea’s bass that sounds like the soundtrack to a Pink Panther cartoon before Frusciante did. rips another one of his Hendrix-esque solos. They also have fun letting the sounds of their instruments spin around each other in jams, especially with “The Heavy Wing” where Frusciante’s psychedelic passions clearly inspired the soaring vocals and his soaring guitar playing.
It’s definitely not the Chili Peppers of yore, nor the band from Frusciante’s last term, or the band from their last two albums. The classic Chili Peppers beat is still there, as Flea and Smith still create one of the best backbeats in rock history. There are even hints of Klinghoffer’s style in the background of some songs (“Bastards of Light”, “She’s a Lover”), which is reassuring to know how much he meant to the band in the absence of Frustrating. But the band are clearly working on their solo aspirations together, as if they’re on the verge of getting back together. It’s like we’re listening to their music therapy sessions as the band members think about what they’re going to do in their second or third life together.
While the ideas thrown at the wall are unique, they don’t always stick, let alone merge. Unlimited love doesn’t have a consistent sound like Stadium Arcadium or even the getaway had. And even with all the different types of song structures, it doesn’t take any major stylistic shifts either. Rubin might be to blame because he keeps the Chili Peppers sound boosted across all 17 tracks instead of letting certain songs be quieter or letting big moments turn into something head-banging worthy.
The first single and album opener “Black Summer” sounds like a Stadium Arcadium The B-side remained on the cutting room floor and although Rubin let Frusciante build a classic “Dani California” type solo, it didn’t leave much to be desired. “Not the One” is the lesser homage to Echo Canyon for having a weak vocal performance in need of better background harmonies. Kiedis had his moments as a singer, but his voice has never been called “pretty” and it certainly won’t be in his senior years. “The Great Apes” is a whirlwind five-minute jam that proves that Frusciante, Flea and Smith are still skilled musicians, but it’s something that could have been edited or cut entirely (especially when the far superior jam “It’s Only Natural” is the very next song).
People looking for typical Chili Peppers fare might enjoy the bouncy “She’s a Lover,” though it sounds closer to something weird. I am okay than Sex Magik Blood Sugar. It’s a shame the album doesn’t end with the powerful jam of “The Heavy Wing” and instead ends with the sweet ballad “Tangelo” which has a bit too much finishing to be an effective close-up. The Chili Peppers are no strangers to long albums (Unlimited love almost the same length as Sex Magik Blood Sugar), but it doesn’t have to be 17 tracks long.
As always, the lyrics of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are as difficult to describe as they are to utter through Kiedis. Still, you can hear how the meeting did Unlimited love a nostalgic affair to write songs. Take “Veronica,” where Kiedis seemingly splits his thoughts on love coming and going through three third-person perspectives, the last being love itself (“I’m from the same place as everyone else/Just lucky to be here”). Even as he sings the end of his “passionate friend”, the group repeats “Been a long time now” and “I don’t want it to be”. The nostalgia is ever-present on “Aquatic Mouth Dance” and “Poster Child,” where Kiedis spits rhymes about how Grandmaster Flash and Siouxsie and the Banshees brought the band “Growin’ out of fertile ground” to start rocking. , or how he sees endless possibilities for love in a world where “Bernie Mac and CaddyShack were dusty as a lighter brac.” But love is the driving force behind these reunions and, therefore, Unlimited love, with Kiedis and co. spin more stories about mysterious ladies and the spells they cast on boys. “Whatchu Thinkin'” details a wild adventure through the western mountains where Kiedis says he could be a “beneficial friend” before wanting to spend the night with a “charged cobra” who is “not a better place to kiss” on “White Braids & Chair-pillow. Three things in life remain inevitable: death, taxes and the excitement of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
And yet, the album ends with two moments that can be seen as Frusciante really reconnecting with the band and vice versa. “The Heavy Wing” sounds like a communication from Frusciante, especially since he sings the chorus about how he “came[s] slow down now for everything” and “bleed[ing] in your jokes. Those jokes to Frusciante are “memory” and “chemistry,” both those things clearly found in his time with the band and what he wants back regardless of how much time has passed. “Tangelo” has Kiedis (and presumably Flea and Smith) responding to how much they miss a lost love. Kiedis sings about not feeling like “someone else’s shadow” and more like a “life force inside to do anything”. It’s clear that even in the worst of times (“And a Knife’s Smile Seldom Befriends”), the band had a distinct sense that “the dream of this love never died out.”
If you expect a triumphant return of classic Red Hot Chili Peppers, Unlimited love is not it. With the different musical ideas scattered throughout the album and the relaxed performances of each song, it’s clear that the reunited Chili Peppers don’t have the strongest momentum yet to kick off the jams. The musical synergy within the group is still there, fortunately, and Frusciante always knows how to be the anchor (or the star) of a Chili Peppers song with his guitar. The problem with Unlimited love is that it feels more like a jam rehearsal than a full album. It actually has more in common with I am okay than Stadium Arcadium, the first being a band trying to adapt to the tendencies of their new guitarist. Maybe the Peppers have another raucous record in them and maybe they’ll get their groove back when (if at all) they hit the road in the near future. For now, it’s interesting to hear them come back into each other’s orbit even if they haven’t exactly realigned…yet.