Early in the second hour of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ mammoth new double album, the guy who once yelped, “I want to party on your pussy!” whisper-sings a gentler, though not unrelated, proposition: “All I want is for you to be happy/And take this woman and make you my family.” The delicate “Hard to Concentrate” is the most vulnerable Peppers tune ever — a full-on marriage proposal from Anthony Kiedis, with Flea’s muted bass and John Frusciante’s layered guitars slow-dancing over Afrobeat hand drums.
The twenty-eight-song, box-set-length Stadium Arcadium isn’t a middle-aged concept album about trading in your tube sock for a tux. But the band’s ninth studio album is the most ambitious work of its twenty-three-year career — an attempt to consolidate everything that is Chili Peppers, from their earlier, funnier funk-metal stuff to soul-baring “Under the Bridge”-style balladry to Californicating vocal-harmony pop. And unlike the Foo Fighters’ similarly expansive but bloated double disc In Your Honor, and almost every other double album of the post-vinyl era, the band pulls it off. It’s a late-career triumph that could pass for another, lesser group’s greatest-hits collection.
Much of the credit for the album’s depth — and the swelling, ever-morphing, headphone-candy arrangements that boost every track — goes to the band’s not-so-secret weapon, John Frusciante. It’s been clear since his return to the band on 1999’s Californication that Frusciante came away from his near-fatal heroin addiction with new musical superpowers, and they’re in full bloom on Stadium Arcadium. Take “Charlie,” which sounds like a monochromatic “Give It Away” retread until it bursts into the rainbows of Frusciante’s falsetto harmonies and dueling, simultaneous guitar solos. Also of note are the laser-gun funk riffing and nuclear-fuzz solo on the pulsing, supercatchy “Tell Me Baby” and the Art Garfunkel-like backup vocals on the eerie, droning ballad “If.”
But like the Rolling Stones — another rhythm-conscious act who started by ripping off black music only to dig much deeper — the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a real band, where everybody counts and no one is replaceable (save for, perhaps, Bill Wyman). Flea has spent years whittling down his frantic popping and slapping to a Zen-like melodic minimalism, while melding ever more deeply with Chad Smith, who remains the swingingest rock drummer this side of Mitch Mitchell. But after 2002’s By the Way, the band’s least funky album, the bassist finally cuts loose again here, reasserting himself as the best non-hip-hop reason to buy a subwoofer. Flea’s quacking, double-time lines on “21st Century” are a reminder that the Chili Peppers were recording Gang of Four-influenced dance rock back when Franz Ferdinand was just a dead Austrian. And then there’s Kiedis, whose vocals keep improving at an age when many rockers start slipping their high notes to backup singers. He shows versatility throughout, from his dead-on impression of Jimi Hendrix (his biggest vocal influence) on “Hump de Bump” to a new country-rock growl on the chorus of the riff-o-rama track “Readymade.” Kiedis is also, more or less, the inventor of rap rock, and he embraces his roots, dropping the most rhymes on any album since BloodSugarSexMagik. He hasn’t updated his flow in a couple of decades, and most of his lyrics are still unrepentant nonsense (“Ticky ticky tackita tic tac toe/I know everybody’s Eskimo”). But the very familiarity of the style makes it an appealing counterpoint to the band’s latter-day melodic splendor, instead of a Durst-ian embarrassment.
Stadium Arcadium has too many midtempo tracks and, in the manner of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is more of a summation of the Peppers’ career than a step forward. But the band is still capable of surprises, as on one of the discs’ many potential singles: the bouncy, four-chord “Make You Feel Better,” a Sixties-influenced pop tune with Fifth Dimension harmonies and a Ringo Starr beat. A few songs later, Kiedis seems to confess some fears about the project at hand: “The risk, is it worth it?/The disc, is it perfect?” Perfect? Nah. But close enough.