My memories surrounding the seventh studio album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers are flooded with great moments spent with this classic, late-90’s record on many Summer evening drives back and forth from the beach. Californication came at a time when my sixteen-year-old self was rapidly veering away from the pop that was dominating the airwaves of the radio, and I vividly remember when I purchased a CD copy of this album that I still hold in such high esteem to this day. As I look back on the 20th anniversary of this classic, I remember how I was immediately drawn into the world the band was describing in ways I never thought that I could be. I was transformed within an album from the very first notes. While my younger self may not have fully grasped all the themes that were being tossed around in the lyrics such as: death, suicide, globalization, and traveling, I could still appreciate every ounce of blood sweat and tears that the band had put into the classic LP.
To set the stage a bit for this moment in time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were coming off a commercially disappointing album in the form of One Hot Minute, yet on Californication they made the wise decision to turn back to talented guitarist/songwriter John Frusciante, and the Chili Peppers once again skyrocketed to superstar status. Californication went on to sell over seven million copies in the United States alone, and the band members’ lives were forever changed. “Scar Tissue” was the first single released from the record, and was one of their more straight-forward songs on the album as far as song structure and tempo. I enjoyed this single enough to rush out to the store to buy the record after first listen, but little did I know that of all the songs that impacted me and my future taste in music, this particular track would have the least lasting impact.
My deeper dives into the record found that I was less drawn to the first few radio singles, but instead I was embracing the entire album as a cohesive work of art. I was as guilty as the next person of skipping from track to track in the heyday of the “CD boom,” yet on Californication I quickly discovered that there wasn’t a single song that I disliked and this record would forever change the way I would feel about albums in general.
The album opener, “Around the World” was one of the most immediately gratifying songs to open any LP in the ’90s with its thunderous introductory bass solo from Flea, rip-roaring wails on the guitar from John Frusciante, pulsating drums from Chad Smith, and howling vocals from Anthony Kiedis. The song deserved to be first on the record for so many reasons and was the perfect way to re-introduce this version of the Chili Peppers to the masses. The band shows little restraint in this song, yet each member picks their spots to shine into a wall of sound that will be remembered long after the group decides to call it a career.
“Parallel Universe” has the unfortunate sequencing position of following the immediacy of the opener, yet with its intricate guitar chords and incredible bass lines found throughout, it would be hard to imagine this record without this song. The track makes the second reference to the state of California in the proudest of ways when Kiedis sings on the chorus, “Christ, I’m a sidewinder/I’m a California King.” It’s almost as if by making this statement, Kiedis knew just how big of an impact this song, and record in general, would have on the rock scene. The track also carries one of the more powerful and meaningful lyrics to the Chili Peppers fanbase when the final verse says, “I Am With You.” The lyric became a mantra of sorts for their adoring fanbase, as several concert-goers took to write these words on signs for the shows. The band noticed this connection and decided to name their tenth studio album (I’m With You) after it.
Other singles such as “Otherside” and the title track front load the opening half of the record that is filled with more landmark moments than most bands would kill for in a career. On “Otherside,” Kiedis tackles the theme of depression and suicide contemplation with some lyrics that are both reflective and relatable to many simultaneously. When he sings, “Pour my life into a paper cup/The ashtray’s full, and I’m spillin’ my guts,” it’s easy to see imagery Kiedis puts forth of explaining his worries to someone who is not listening as he opens his soul to them. It’s a powerful moment on the record, and lyrically one of my favorites.
“Get On Top” allows the band to embrace their funk-rock roots in a blazing track that showcases some of the stranger lyrical moments in their career, with some shouted and nonsensical phrases in the verses, all building up to a meaningful chorus of introspection and reflecting on society.
The record in many ways crescendos at the title track of Californication and remains one of the most, if not the most, important song in the Chili Peppers’ catalog. Filled with rich imagery of traveling the world, heavy metaphors carrying the weight of the world thru the lens of the group, as well as pop culture references to fallen comrades such as Kurt Cobain. The song remains one of their most performed songs in their sets, having made an appearance in over 500-plus concert setlists. I also remember that when the video for the single came out, I didn’t think any force on earth could stop the dramatic climb of the Chili Peppers back into the commercial limelight. The song catapulted the band to enormous heights and the staying power of the single was felt over the radio airwaves for a substantial amount of time.
Even if the album had ended after this aforementioned track, it would probably still be one of the greatest albums of my lifetime. Luckily for us, the record continued to expand upon the themes and concepts found in the first half of the LP in dynamic and thoughtful ways. “Easily” is a great song to follow the career-spanning title track, and allows the record never to lose focus as it unfolds. The song lacks the immediacy of the first few singles, yet could have just as quickly ended up as a radio single if Warner Bros. Records had the felt the need to release even more radio content from the LP. “Porcelain” is one of the slowest songs in the Chili Peppers’ entire discography, and it provides a moment for the listener to catch their breath from the hurricane of emotions found in the first seven songs.
The back half, or “side two” so-to-speak, features some great songwriting and Frusciante and Kiedis tend to shine brightest in their chemistry and harmonies. This is especially powerful on the album closer, “Road Trippin'” which is just Kiedis’ vocals harmonized with Fruciante and his acoustic guitar. The closer also features some well-placed string sections to help drive the point home and allows for a tender moment of closure for the record.
While many may be quick to write-off the back half of the record as filler or standard RHCP fodder, the songs found here are still pretty damn powerful and strong listening to them 20 years after their birth. “I Like Dirt” has some cool starts and stops to the tempo of the song, and quickly reminds early fans of the band why they fell in love with the group in the first place. The funk-rock elements will always be a part of the Chili Peppers’ DNA, and it’s clear that as much as their record label may have wanted them to stray away from these styles in favor of more radio-friendly tones, their trust and collaborative working environment with veteran producer Rick Rubin showcased their substantial relationship with their past influences while still maintaining enough creativity to embrace the uncertain future.
“Savior” could also be one of the best non-radio released songs in their repertoire, with its anthemic feel and rustic approach to songwriting in general. “Purple Stain” and “Right on Time” still serve as great reminders of the funk-rock style that the Chili Peppers perfected on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the cohesiveness of the band as a unit through these songs are truly magical.
Californication at twenty years of age has aged gracefully, methodically, and remains my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers record to date. While I may not have appreciated all of the sounds, nuances, and lyrical themes that were there from the first listen of that CD back in 1999, I inevitably look back fondly on all the emotions that flood back into my mind-space every time I put my headphones on and let this record completely engulf me in all its intended glory. This LP deserves all of the repeats listens it has accrued over my lifetime, and I look forward to revisiting this record for many more years to come.