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31 March 2022

Think you’re too cool to like the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Think again

They’ve always walked the fine line between the sublime and the embarrassing – but as pencil eyeliner, baggy jeans and Brendan Fraser come back into fashion, it’s time to embrace the Chilis, too.

By Emma Garland

The Overton window is shifting on many things that, for the past two decades, have been considered largely uncool. Pencil eyeliner, baggy jeans and Brendan Fraser are all back in the zeitgeist after a period of cultural excommunication, finally freeing themselves from their association with millennial shame. Now, the same thing is happening with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Much like Ant & Dec, or austerity, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been a constant of millennial life. They were thriving before most of us arrived, reached their commercial peak as we hit puberty, and have maintained a steady presence in pop culture ever since. As a long-time defender of their music over the years, I have been faced with a difficult task. The Chilis’ brand of bro-funk and Ultimate Guitar Tab jams walks a very fine line between the sublime and the embarrassing, at risk of curdling into “the ick” at any moment. When they’re good, they produce songs that, even if you wouldn’t listen to them intentionally, force you to stop mid-conversation, furrow your brow and go “oof” when they come on in a bar (“Scar Tissue”! “Under the Bridge”! “Dani California”!) When they’re bad, they make “Hump De Bump”. High risk, high reward.

If you were ever drawn to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was probably for one of two reasons: their technical musicianship, or (more likely) the vibes. This is a band built on crudeness and camaraderie; that rose up through mid-80s California’s surf/skate culture alongside similarly fusion-minded bands such as Mr Bungle, Fishbone and Primus. Their early naked performances and appearances in films such as Point Break and Thrashin’ embraced “dumbass with a six pack” masculinity, while hyper-sexualising and subverting it (hence their popularity among both women, and men who are really into sports). They’re himbos with instruments, Blink-182 for people who have a favourite type of incense.

Almost 40 years after their formation, the self-proclaimed “good time boys” of alternative rock have finally got their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (which will be unveiled on 31 March by an unlikely yet very telling trinity of George Clinton, Woody Harrelson and Bob Forrest). The following day, they’ll drop Unlimited Love, their twelfth studio album and first with guitarist John Frusciante since he left in 2009. Its release will be supported by a world tour with A$AP Rocky, Thundercat and Anderson Paak (another unlikely trinity that does a good job of pin-pointing where the band’s legacy and influence now sits).

Perhaps as a result of the return of Frusciante, Unlimited Love revives the effortless energy of the Chilis’ Nineties and early-Noughties output when the guitarist drove the band’s pivot away from horned-up funky board-shorts music and into blissed-out, multi-layered melancholia. It’s probably not a coincidence that the new album opens with a vintage Frusciante riff – the kind that makes you feel like you’re travelling home from a long day at the beach; eyes heavy, shoulders fizzling from sun exposure. The lead single, “Black Summer”, is a classic “Under the Bridge”-style slow jam that builds into an endless guitar solo. The second track track “Here Ever After” contains echoes of “By the Way” with a thumping rhythm section and staccato verses, and from there the album wanders through a melee of jazz funk, piano ballads and riffy psychedelia. 

Like almost every major label release lately, the tracklist is a little bloated and could benefit from the loss of some of its more middling moments – the landfill indie-adjacent “These are the Ways”, the queasy circus beat of “Bastards of Light” (a song only a band like Ween or the Rembrandts could get away with) and a track that uses the lyric “white braids and pillow chair” as its melodic centrepiece (cue Miley Cyrus voice: what does it MEAN???). But regardless of these misses, long-time fans will likely find Unlimited Love enjoyable and comforting. It contains every ingredient of their magic formula: Frusciante’s noodling, Chad Smith’s textured jazz drumming, Flea’s bass pops, Anthony Kiedis singing about wanting to lick someone’s face – all polished with typically sharp Rick Rubin production. Only the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in 2022, would release an album so uninformed by anything that’s happening around them and make it work through sheer force of charisma.

No matter how big the band became (they have the most cumulative weeks at number one and most top 10 songs on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart), they still approached songwriting like it was a free jam in someone’s garage, the audience sat across the room on a beat-up couch, drinking Bud Light. With most band members now aged around 60, they hung up their cock-socks a long time ago, but that fun-loving spirit is still foundational to Unlimited Love

Personally I think they’re at their best when there’s a palpable darkness beneath the surface, but perhaps that’s not the version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers we need right now. If 2022 is in dire need of anything, it’s a good time.

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