The 10th Red Hot Chili Peppers album opens in chaos: the primordial rumblings of a band tuning up for a jam, perhaps for its first in a long time. You can almost see singer Anthony Kiedis standing in the corner, shirtlessly waiting to leap into the fray. The noise blooms into a Californicatin' disco inferno called "Monarchy of Roses," where Kiedis wonders, "Do you like it rough, I ask/And are you up to task?" He could be singing to himself. I'm With You finds a mighty band in a scary new role: underdog.
It's been five quiet years since the Chili Peppers' last album, the double-disc Stadium Arcadium. In 2009, they lost guitarist John Frusciante, a split that might've ended the band. But I'm With You pulls them back from the abyss, bravado intact: "Ticktock I want to rock you like the Eighties," Kiedis sings over a Chic-kissed throb on "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie." And so they do.
Flea says he revisited his Rolling Stones records while writing I'm With You, and in some ways it recalls the Stones regrouping post-Brian Jones, returning to their roots and building out. The Chilis and producer Rick Rubin couldn't fill the void left by Frusciante – whose bracing, layered guitar work and maximalist arrangements defined their recent albums. Instead, they've gone back to the essentials of the freaky-styley funk punk that Kiedis, Flea and drummer Chad Smith invented: fretpoppin' grooves that open up into grand, sunny pop choruses. They've also nuanced it – from the push-pull East African rhythms of "Ethiopia" to the "Waiting on a Friend"- style elegance of "Meet Me at the Corner" to the Latin-tinged "Did I Let You Know," where Kiedis throws down the adorably inane rappin' whiteboy come-on: "I like you cheeky/Oh so Mozambique-y."
New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who's worked with Beck and Gnarls Barkley, is well suited for giving old tricks new shape. He's textured and elusive, layering riffs and melodies where Frusciante burned solos; check the chickenscratch fractals he laces across "Factory of Faith" or the transition from searing noise flares to soft serrations on "Annie Wants a Baby."
This isn't just a musical reignition – the Chilis are recharging emotionally too. Another loss that haunts the album is the recent death of their close friend, L.A. club owner Brendan Mullen. "Brendan's Death Song" begins as an acoustic elegy ("You'll know it's your jam, it's your goodbye," Kiedis almost whispers), then gets Nirvana-loud as Kiedis stares down his own mortality. The soft, intimate Hendrix-like ballad "Police Station" follows an old lover through the Hollywood ringer, and doubles as a mirror for his own L.A. story.
The peak moments on I'm With You balance swagger and sensitivity. Over the green-mohawked mirror-ball boogie of "Look Around," Kiedis rock-raps a vision of golden rapture: "Soft walk to horizon/One big crash that no one dies in." It's the apocalypse as beach blowout, the meltdown as brodown. Strip down to your tube socks and party, dudes – you've earned it.
Listen to "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie":