Sometimes with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it’s best to think of Anthony Kiedis and his vocal lines as just another instrument in the mix. There’s at least a little bit of evidence that the frontman views himself that way, too. As New York Times journalist Nate Chinen wrote in his review of the Peppers’ new album, The Getaway, Kiedis “writes lyrics with rhythmic cadence first and foremost, which means that there will always be bursts of babble.” RHCP have always been a band whose foundation is rhythm, from their early days as a funk band to their transition into more conventional alt-rock territory with 1999’s Californication. With a rhythm section as talented and dynamic as Flea and Chad Smith, it’s tough to blame Kiedis for wanting to write lyrics that allow for better beat and syncopation. The negative consequence to that impulse is that Kiedis is very frequently singing lyrics that, while they might mean something to him, don’t carry much weight for the average listener.
The Getaway doesn’t really change this fact. There are the requisite mentions of California (the steady surf-pop of the title track) and not-so-sly references to the band name (“We Turn Red,” which sounds like it could have been a b-side of virtually any other RHCP album). Even the terrific lead single, “Dark Necessities,” doesn’t have that much to offer lyrically. “Stumble down to the parking lot/You got no time for the afterthought/They’re like ice cream for an astronaut/Well that’s me looking for weed.” Here, and in plenty of other places, it sounds a bit like Kiedis just searched words on RhymeZone and wrote lyrics to create rhymes—not to cultivate meaning. And while the frontman has offered a bit of detail on why he wrote the song — saying, “[it] speaks to the beauty of our dark sides and how much creativity and growth and light actually comes out of those difficult struggles that we have on the insides of our heads that no one else can see,” — it’s still kind of tough to delve into his lyrics beyond the surface level.
But such has almost always been true about Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kiedis has written great songs — mostly because of his gift for catchy melodies — but only the ones that open up about his drug addiction are particularly compelling lyrically. Other times, his lyrics are just a device to tie the songs together and provide a melodic foundation that the rest of the band can use to create stunning musical arrangements. After 2011’s I’m with You, it seemed like maybe he’d lost that gift. Overlong, poorly produced, and rarely interesting from either a musical or lyrical perspective, I’m with You was one of the weakest records in the Peppers’ storied discography. Coming off the momentum of their on-top-of-the-world double album experiment (2006’s Stadium Arcadium), I’m with You raised the question of whether or not it was time for these guys to go their separate ways. It didn’t help that John Frusciante — the clear driving force of the band on both Stadium and 2002’s By the Way — had departed the band for the second time, replaced by the largely ineffectual Josh Klinghoffer.
The Peppers all bounce back on The Getaway. Flea is more present; Kiedis has rediscovered his gift for melody; and Smith’s drums have a furor to them that was lacking on I’m with You. Most of all, Klinghoffer has found his niche in the band. When the band recorded I’m with You, Klinghoffer and the other three members had never played a live show together. They were figuring out the chemistry in the studio as they wrote and recorded songs, which obviously wasn’t the best recipe for a tight-knit sound. The Getaway comes five years later, which means that Klinghoffer isn’t the new guy anymore, and it shows in the songs. From his spidery, wall-scaling riffs in “Goodbye Angels” to his ’70s R&B grooving on “Sick Love,” he’s clearly come into his own here. Often, he sounds just like Frusciante. This record is also littered with high vocal harmonies like the ones Frusciante used to provide, so maybe someone told Klinghoffer to emulate his idol a bit more. At least if the band is still working in the long shadows of their former guitarist, though, they are doing so with better results than last time.
It doesn’t hurt that The Getaway is probably the best-sounding RHCP album ever. After many, many years of working with Rick Rubin, the band decided it was time for a change. Taking the producer’s chair is another living legend, in the form of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. Like Rubin, Danger Mouse is a producer that I personally find a tad overrated. His production style is overly vanilla to my ears, and has resulted in some surprisingly negative results over the years—from shrink-wrapping U2’s sound on Songs of Innocence to taking any soul and attitude that the Black Keys had out of their music on Turn Blue. As it turns out, though, the Peppers’ mix of SoCal pop, funk, disco, and ’70s R&B is the perfect match for Burton’s abilities. These songs have plenty of sheen, but it suits the band and underlines their musical abilities without making anything sound artificial. The mixing (courtesy of Nigel Godrich) and the mastering (Stephen Marcussen) are also exquisite, at last freeing RHCP from the influence of loudness war hack Vlado Meller.
Of course, all of these tweaks—a new producer, a better master, improved chemistry among this incarnation of the band—would be for naught if the songs weren’t any good. For the most part, they are. “Dark Necessities” in particular, is the band’s finest single in years, a dark, slowed-down disco song where keyboards, a knockout chorus, and a lengthy intro single-handedly bring the band back from the dead. This album is at its best while in the slower, more atmospheric ends of the tempo spectrum, as with the lush and beautiful “Encore,” or “The Hunter,” a desolate and cinematic number that recalls U2’s “Love is Blindness.” Virtually every song here has something to offer, though, from the indelible chorus of “The Longest Wave” to “Sick Love,” a foot-tapping groover that was co-written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. There aren’t as many lofty highlights as there were on Californication, By the Way, or even Stadium Arcadium, but front-to-back, The Getaway is the band’s best and most cohesive record since 2002. Frankly, it’s a return to form that I hadn’t ever expected to hear.