I’m telling you, listening to 28 Red Hot Chili Peppers songs in one session isn’t easy, and not just because the top-secret review discs of the just-released double album Stadium Arcadium were encrypted to such a degree they wouldn’t play in anything (not my home stereo, not my computer, not my car) except my boom box, which was out on my back porch and, well, it was cold out, and what I’m trying to say is nothing makes sense right now. I mean, I laughed, I cried, I danced, I did my best impression of Crispin Glover on the Lettermanshow, and sometimes I even think the songs were intended to have that effect. What a freaking mess. The record’s kind of a mess, too.
But I gotta give the boys, er, middle-aged men credit: It’s a beautiful, sprawling, ambitious mess, a no-holds-barred, fuck-’em-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke and fuck-’em-even-more-if-they-don’t-get-that-we’re-not-a-joke mess. And after more than two decades marked mostly by steady growth, they’ve earned the right to it, if you ask me. The two discs composing Stadium Arcadium — the first called “Jupiter” and the second “Mars” (I guess they were on their way back from Saturn) — are epic in reach and sometimes even in grasp. But more to the point, and more to the band’s credit, Stadium Arcadium doesn’t feel forced, but rather like the inevitable climax of a band on an unprecedented and, let’s face it, unpredicted creative run.
In trying to come to terms with what’s going down here, I kept scrawling one word on the wall in red crayon (held between my big and second toes): Tusk. Yes, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Bear with me. Tusk, released in 1979, was also a double album, finishing off a trilogy that a reconstituted Fleetwood Mac — bringing on nutty professor Lindsey Buckingham and his muse, Stevie Nicks — began with the eponymous Fleetwood Mac and followed with the landmark Rumours. Tusk was a glorious shambles, too, a kitchen-sink affair in which every idea the band had, many good and some not so good, was thrown into the mix (including the USC Trojan Marching Band), but somehow held together (barely) by sheer momentum, prowess and chutzpah. Like its predecessors, Tusk was made for and by Los Angeles — both in its lush pop sound and thematic concerns of dissolution and survival. But, unlike Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, Tusk got jiggy with it, let it all hang out, and went haywire in the process. It wasn’t the best album of the three, but it is probably the best testament to what the band was capable of at its creative peak. It was a 1970s Californicated White Album, as much Didion in essence as Beatles.
Likewise, a reconstituted Chili Peppers — in the form of back-from-the-dead nutty professor John Frusciante, reunited with his muse, Michael “Flea” Balzary — set off on a path with 1999’s Californication that marked a creative turning point for the band, showing off a newfound musical prowess and a newly outward-looking maturity in their songwriting. That path continued with the excellent By the Way, the Chilis’ most focused and realized record to date, and has now reached a kind of semi-loony apotheosis with Stadium. As with Fleetwood Mac, the Peppers trilogy is a mostly plaintive ode to the broken hearts and lingering promise that mark life in Los Angeles, and, like Tusk, Stadium also pays homage to the band itself, reading like a monumental mural depicting its own past, present and future. For better, and sometimes for worse, it is their own haywire White Album.
For better are the lilting ballads, the soaring rock anthems and the spaghetti-Western guitar lines (not to mention Rumours-era Lindsey Buckingham leads) that first made their presence felt on Californication and came to fruition on By the Way. “If,” a gorgeous love song modestly tucked midway through the second disc, is the most laid bare Anthony Keidis has been at any time excepting By the Way’s “Venice Queen.” And like that song, “If” benefits greatly from the singer getting real instead of plying the mysto-cosmic jibber-jabber or mofo-funk mojo that can get him into trouble as a lyricist. “And if I saw it all so clear/I’d write it down and bend your ear/If I were the clearer of the two.” “Wet Sand,” on the Jupiter disc, and “Desecration Smile,” which leads off Mars, build slowly in minor keys before reaching heroic climaxes à la “Midnight” and “Minor Thing” from By the Way. These songs, and others, show off the band’s growing strengths: Keidis’ surprising sense of melody and improving vocal range; Flea’s seductive, snaking bass lines; Chad Smith’s nimble drumming; the band’s lush vocal harmonies; and, of course, Frusciante’s deal-with-the-devil, postmodern guitar genius.
By way of most overtly paying homage to themselves, the Chilis have brought back the funk. Sometimes it’s with a vengeance, as in the super-heavy “Readymade” on Mars, and even the No. 1 single, “Dani California,” on Jupiter; sometimes it’s with a kick and a smile (you’ll be laughing and dancing on Jupiter’s “Warlock” and “Hump de Bump”), and — this is where the for worse comes in — sometimes with the bad-old freaky-styley, as in Mars’ plain silly “So Much I.” But throughout there are references to past characters (“Dani the girl” from “By the Way” gets her own song) and concerns (death, sobriety, sex, love), and to the band’s own history (almost every Peppers phase is sound-checked). The record, when it’s on target, is colored with folks, sometimes real people, sometimes the band members themselves, trying to overcome their flaws and be better, whether that means getting clean or getting humble in the face of impending mortality. When it’s off target, as in the clunky ballad “Strip My Mind,” it’s a reminder of how painful the Chilis’ growing pains often were.