It turns out Californication was only foreplay. With the accomplished, insanely melodic By the Way, the Red Hot Chili Peppers dive headfirst into the pop realm that their 1999 single “Scar Tissue” hinted at. They swim around in the same inviting Southern California waters that inspired the Beach Boys, and discover that the incandescent hook can say as much as, if not more than, the testosterone-driven backbeat.
A near-perfect balance of gutter grime and high-art aspiration, the Rick Rubin-produced By the Way continues the Peppers’ slow-motion makeover. The band pioneered the funk-rock-rap hybrid thing in the Eighties, and then, beginning with BloodSugarSexMagik and its single “Under the Bridge” in 1991, began moving away from the genre’s stultifying repetitions. Slyly, without doing anything drastic to alienate their core audience, the Peppers have shed their early devices — the jerky raps, the faux-P-Funk rhythms — that were once innovative but quickly became the stock tools of every rap-metal hybrid in the land. Along the way, the Peppers’ songs got more intricate, acquiring string riffs and heroic guitar counterlines, and pretty soon this band of loutish love thugs became the alt-rock Aerosmith (minus the screeching-and-beseeching power ballads), creators of music that could be at once credible and commercial. The transition has been so gradual that those who were on the scene in the rowdy Eighties followed right along and stayed as the band made its lunge toward art.
On By the Way, these reformed groove savants head out on an even more radical pursuit, chasing that elusive moment of giddy, unspeakable bliss most often found in the work of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. They don’t only want to reference that kind of writing, though — they work to take the songs there. Singer Anthony Kiedis’ utopian love themes and hot-oil sex scenes have been raised to a Pet Sounds level of refinement. The hooks, most from the pen of guitarist and budding auteur John Frusciante, are sweet but never syrupy. The Peppers have never been this consistent: Even the seemingly mindless songs come with consciousness-expanding bridges instead of just salacious vamps, and they toss out sprawling existential questions (“Is it safe inside your head?”) as often as they strive for tidy answers.
By the Way would be notable just for its parade of relentlessly catchy melodies: “This Is the Place,” “Midnight” and the karmic allegory “Universally Speaking” are three of maybe eight tracks persuasive enough to own the radio this summer. Several others venture down unusual alleyways — the suitelike “Venice Queen,” the Latin gallop “Cabron,” which advocates peace in a gang-run neighborhood — and two or three, if omitted, wouldn’t be missed. But here is where the band’s years spent perfecting the deep-funk groove have paid off: Even the few obligatory mawkish ballads are delivered as though they were urgent bulletins from some metaphysical front line, with an intensity rarely heard on multitracked recordings. Anyone can build a song around a simple command such as “Throw Away Your Television”; the Chili Peppers take that idea, lash it to a romping beat that recalls the Ellington orchestra’s 1930s-vintage jungle jumps, and turn it into something positively galvanizing, the seed of a get-off-the-couch revolution.
Similarly unexpected references turn up throughout By the Way — Kiedis stretches his voice into some Beatlesque psychedelia on “Universally Speaking” and contributes to a Beach Boys chorale on “The Zephyr Song,” which is as close as this band has come to conjuring pure California sunshine. And even the more “typical” Chili Pepper rumbles — such as “Midnight,” which finds Kiedis urging, “Mix it up until there are no pedigrees” — are not exactly boilerplate retreads. They’re smart extensions of the identifiable brand, examples of how to expand an already distinctive sound and evolve, organically, without going too far. It’s one thing to mix things up until the pedigrees are obliterated. It’s another to do what the Chili Peppers have done: Gather disconnected sounds and ideas from all over the map into something that’s cohesive and bold, and, despite its mongrel origins, couldn’t come from anyone else.