Let’s keep it real: white boys do not have to be funky; they only have to rock, and that the Red Hot Chili Peppers do quite wickedly, thank you. Historically, though, RHCP albums have been long on sock-it-to-me passion but short on the songcraft that made their hero George Clinton’s most acid-addled experiments lyrically haunting and melodically infectious. Up until this new Peppers joint, Californication, that is. For Lord knows what reasons — age, sobriety, Blonde on Blonde ambitions or worship at the altar of Billy Corgan — they’ve settled down and written a whole album’s worth of tunes that tickle the ear, romance the booty, swell the heart, moisten the tear ducts and dilate the third eye. All this inside of song forms and production that reveal sublime new facets upon each hearing.
Back in the revolving-guitar saddle is John Frusciante, of Blood Sugar Sex Magik fame, who replaces the outgoing Dave Navarro (who, of course, replaced Frusciante himself not so long ago) and proves once again why he’s the only ax slinger God ever wanted to be a Pepper, too. As in days of yore, Frusciante continually hits the mark with slithery chicken licks, ingenious power chording, Axis: Bold as Love grace notes and sublimely syncopated noises that allow the nimble Flea to freely bounce back and forth between bombastic lead and architectonic rhythm parts on the bass. If there were a Most Valuable Bass Player award given out in rock, Flea could have laid claim to that bitch ten years running.
The real star turn on this disc, though, is by Anthony Kiedis, whose vocal cords have apparently been down to some crossroads and over the rehab, and returned with heretofore unheard-of range, body, pitch, soulfulness and melodic sensibility. On “Scar Tissue” he laces out a falsetto purple enough to have made Jeff Buckley swoon with envy; on “Savior” he croons and belts with enough chest-thumping pride to suggest that Vegas is just a kiss away, sustaining supple, buoyant tones with such ease, you know he must be amazing himself, too. (As a friend observed, if she didn’t know it was Kiedis, she would have thought the vocalist a Kiedis clone who could actually sing.) The point being that until you hear Californication, you haven’t ever heard Kiedis truly sang, as they say in the church, nor prove himself so adept and moving in the lyrics department, either. Just in time for Matrix fever, “Parallel Universe” speaks of an “underwater where thoughts can breathe easily/Far away you were made in a sea, just like me” to the beat of a track that hybridinally splits the difference between the Yardbirds and Eurodisco. (Flea and Frusciante’s remarkable handheld trillings on that one are more than a little technically impressive, we should add.)
The band treads more-familiar funk-rap ground on cuts like “Get on Top” and “Right on Time,” and on this album’s “Under the Bridge” reduxes — the title track and the aforementioned “Scar Tissue,” a dreamy Venice Beach pimp stroll with lullaby-lovely slide guitar. But songs like “Otherside” and “Porcelain” are delicate, vulnerable and volatile enough to earn the rubric Pumpkins-esque, while the baroque progressions and contrapuntal maneuvers heard on the hook-drunk “Easily” could have one thinking that the Chili Peppers car-jacked Elvis Costello and made off like musical bandits. The poetry found on “Easily” is no joke: “The story of a woman on the morning of a war/Remind me, if you will, exactly what we’re fighting for/Throw me to the wolves, because there’s order in the pack/Throw me to the sky, because I know I’m coming back.” As dope as all of the above are, however, they’re only the setup for the glistening simplicity and serenity displayed on the disc’s denouement, “Road Trippin’,” a finger-picked Olde English stylee number that ties the album up in a bow while gently inferring that Californication is the recovering singer’s way of reminding himself to wake up and live and be “a mirror for the sun.”
While all previous Chili Peppers projects have been highly spirited, Californication dares to be spiritual and epiphanal, proposing that these evolved RHCP furthermuckers are now moving toward funk’s real Holy Grail: that salty marriage of esoteric mythology and insatiable musicality that salvages souls, binds communities and heals the sick. Not exactly your average white band.