In most conversations about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, someone will bring out a quote supposedly attributed to Nick Cave: “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Jokes aside, one undeniable thing is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ skill. Over the past 40 years, the band have evolved from their funk-rock roots into alt-rock phenoms, selling out the world’s biggest stadiums and becoming synonymous with one of the greatest eras of rock music.
The band have gone through countless iterations, although their core lineup of frontman Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante are responsible for their biggest hits. Frusciante’s singular style of playing propelled the Peppers from a Funkadelic homage into a confident, exciting outfit. Like Slash from Guns N’ Roses or the late Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, the Chilis owed much of their success to his contributions. Then, Frusciante quit.
The Chilis are a polarizing band. Despite what seems like a universal appeal and a talented group of musicians making harmless, groovy tunes, they are nonetheless targets of valid criticism. It makes sense that such a controversial band would pave the way for nu-metal and rap-rock, two genres that are retroactively receiving praise after a period of ironic consumption or outright dismissal. Much of the criticism rests on Kiedis, whose lyricism and rap-singing sometimes border on self-parody. Then again, Kiedis was never meant to be the centerpiece of the band. He attempted to wrangle his messy lyricism into semi-coherent poems of love on 2016’s The Getaway, the second album to feature Frusciante’s worthy replacement Josh Klinghoffer. It was one of the band’s lowest of lows, and in 2019, Frusciante returned.
Unlimited Love, the band’s first album with their iconic lineup reunited once more, is self-indulgent from the moment it begins. “Black Summer,” both the album’s lead single and opening track, opens with a chilling guitar riff that builds momentum with Smith’s strict rhythms and Flea’s understated bass. Look past Kiedis’ distracting Irish pirate accent (that thankfully is not a recurring feature throughout the album) and you’ll find a beautifully concise reintroduction to a classic lineup with a new approach.
The rest of the album is standard Red Hot Chili Peppers fare, picking up where 2006’s Stadium Arcadium left off. Much like that album, Unlimited Love feels like a passionate endeavor. Unlike the retrospective finality that colored Stadium’s propulsive nature, the band’s newest album sounds like an attempt to remind themselves of their magic. The members don’t ask too much from each other, just requesting their most authentic selves.
The result is one of the Chilis’ most cohesive, satisfying albums. After all, they are at their best when left uninhibited. “Here Ever After” sounds like a By The Way-era cut with Kiedis’ nonsensical raps (“Wet my beak and I give it up to that drugstore nose / So unique and I live it up till that liquor store close / In the laundry, queen ballistic / Mangy face with the messed up lipstick”) and “The Great Apes” has some of the most satisfying, intense instrumentation the band have had since the early ‘00s. Frusciante’s oscillating guitars and layered harmonies are difficult to ignore, and it’s an emotional experience to hear over a decade of absence being rectified with each note.
Despite the album’s strengths, it is also bloated and therefore unnecessarily long. At times, it feels like a convoluted lazy river ride through the band’s eras, or a game of catch-up amongst old friends. While that excitement and reinvigorated sense of musicianship is a benefit, Unlimited Love could stand to lose a few tracks. Kiedis’ jazzy raps overstay their welcome, especially when juxtaposed with his warm croons. It’s a recurring pattern throughout the Chilis’ career for their singles to be some of their weakest songs, and it is most apparent on this album’s rollout. “Poster Child” sounds like an A.I. wrote it with its predictable structure of rapping, abrupt melodic chorus and more rapping. “Not the One” is unmemorable, and there can only be so many songs about Kiedis serenading his way into another woman’s heart. On the non-single side of things, “One Way Traffic” is only slightly saved by its bridge, but the band refuse to linger on its good parts for too long before Kiedis returns with his amateurish raps about, you guessed it, driving a car.
If there’s one thing Unlimited Love definitely accomplishes, it’s building momentum for an exciting tour. Tracks like “Whatchu Thinkin’” and “The Heavy Wing” feature two sides of Frusciante’s magic in his gorgeous singing and limber playing, Kiedis’ uniquely ear-tickling intonation and Smith’s impeccable percussion, anchored by Flea’s unshakable funk. It’s a recipe for the band at their best and a world of possibilities for their legendary live shows.
After a trio of worrisome singles, Unlimited Love exceeds expectations. The Red Hot Chili Peppers prepare to enter their fourth decade as a band with a fresh perspective, achieving the rare feat of capturing lightning in a bottle. While this old dog isn’t learning any new tricks, the band’s unmistakable chemistry shines, and each note is a glimpse into a youthful energy that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.