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Middle-Aged Bastards and Still Monsters of Rock

Tusk, Tusk: Just say that you love them.

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.

 

I’m not gonna pretend I have a complete grasp on all this. There’s just too much Arcadium in this Stadium for me to fully come to terms with in a listen or two. I’ll need another year or three, and, truthfully, I might have other things to do with my life. But I can tell you what it feels like fresh off my boom box. It feels like a mad-hatter cruise down Mulholland with the top down and the beautiful and broken scenery of Los Angeles speeding by. And while the whole thing could have benefited from Rick Rubin occasionally turning around and telling the guys in the back seat to settle down for a minute, amazing moments abound. Foremost among them are the weird and wonderful “Animal Bar” and “Death of a Martian” off the Mars disc. These songs alone show that the Chilis have bottled some magic that I can’t imagine any other band in the world conjuring right now. I wonder what they’ll come up with next. Hopefully, not Mirage.

Aside from next to nothing, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam have a lot in common. Musically, they are as far apart as rock gets, but they share some serious back story: Both bands suffered through the heroin ODs of seminal figures (Andrew Wood of Pearl Jam precursor Mother Love Bone; founding member Hillel Slovak of the Chili Peppers), both broke out in 1991-92, with the help of the second Lollapalooza tour; hell, Jack Irons, who used to drum for the Chilis, introduced Eddie Vedder to the other members of Pearl Jam and later did a stint as P.J.’s drummer.

After that, though, they go their own ways. One of the main differences being that Pearl Jam’s first record catapulted them to megastardom almost immediately, while BloodSugarSexMagic was the Chilis’ fifth album.

So, if the Chili Peppers can be said to have been building to this moment, Pearl Jam came out of the gates so fast and furiously — each of their first three records (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) is the kind of statement most bands would spend a career trying to make — perhaps the only thing they could have been building toward was a crash. Instead, they simply slowed down. Some would say they withdrew — into somber, downbeat, sometimes frustratingly (for many) iconoclastic records like Binaural and Riot Act that shed a lot of their casual fans but also slyly shed the overbearing expectations that came with entering about a dozen songs into Rock & Roll Evermore so early in their career.

Now, though, their eighth release, on career-resuscitator Clive Davis’ J Records, tellingly titled Pearl Jam, is being almost universally hailed by the media (including Newsweek, Billboard, Rolling Stone) as a return to form — their best album in years. But “returning to form” can be a dangerous thing. The same thing was said about U2’s last couple of records, and there’s precious little on them worth talking about, let alone remembering. It’s especially dangerous for an inherently restless group like Pearl Jam, who sound like no one else, despite the legion of bland, platinum-selling imitators they spawned, but who also have no two records that sound alike.

Until now, that is, because Pearl Jam sounds like a lot of Pearl Jam records. It’s almost as if they’ve been leafing through photo albums trying to figure out who they are and where they belong after coming home from years in exile. The frenetic, punkish opening tracks — “Life Wasted,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Comatose” and “Severed Hand” — could have been culled from the Vs. and Vitalogy sessions. Meanwhile, the more anthemic numbers, like “Unemployable,” “Gone” and “Inside Job,” would have fit comfortably on 1998’s stirring and largely underappreciated Yield.

Though I happen to be a fan of the band’s recent lost years, and the endearingly world-weary and wizened Eddie Vedder that came with them (perhaps the result of various tragedies like the trampling deaths of nine fans at the Roskilde Festival in 2002, and the breakup of his marriage, and the Bush ascendancy), the return here to something obviously intended for wider appeal isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s because, well, Vedder has things on his mind, and if there’s one thing he can be counted on to do, it’s to say what’s bugging him loudly and to say it proudly. On Pearl Jam, he’s back on the attack, and, well, that suits him and the band just fine, too.

 

The object of his ire is the war in Iraq and the dire state of the union, not surprising since Vedder has been one of rock’s first and most consistent opponents of Bush and the calamity of his presidency, railing against it before it was safe to do so. It would be wrong to call this a concept album. It’s not all war all the time — the soulful R&B-flavored love song “Comeback” is Vedder’s most affecting vocal performance in years, and “Big Wave” is about, yes, surfing. But the psychic toll of war drenches the record like blood on a bayonet. And it’s not all in-your-face numbers like the now-ubiquitous single “World Wide Suicide.” Character-driven storytelling in songs like “Army Reserve” (“Her son’s slanted/always giving her the sideways eye/an empty chair where dad sits/how loud can silence get?”), “Unemployable” and “Gone” are more persuasive than a dozen rants along the lines of Riot Act’s sophomoric “Bu$hleaguer” could ever be.

Thankfully, the record’s tone never drowns in the stormy waters — the compositions throughout range from energetic to elegiac, and the band seems to have learned that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The playing is, as expected, top notch. By now, these guys could smoke most rock bands with their guitars stuck permanently behind their backs. And the sound will be comforting to those who yearn for the straightforward Pearl Jam of old. If you listen closely, however, they do sneak some of the key changes, countermelodies and time-signature shifts they’ve been experimenting with recently into as many of Pearl Jam’s tightly wound songs as they can get away with.

I’m not sure, though, that there’s anything for the ages on this record. As a piece, it sounds whole and it sounds good and, several listens in, many of the hooks stick in your brain — you just might not be able to name the songs that go with them. But Pearl Jam is a much-appreciated kick in the ass to the complacency and triviality that plagues music, and culture in general, from some of our most reliable rabble-rousers. Which is another way of saying it’s kind of refreshing to hear songs that are about something again. Wolfmother, are you listening?

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