Photo Credit: Red Hot Chili Peppers via Twitter
It’s hard to believe that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have now been around – just on record – for thirty-seven years. Not only that, but 2021 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the album which made the band superstars, Blood Sugar Sex Magick. Their new studio release Unlimited Love outwardly reflects some aspects of that 1991 effort, at least in terms of length: it’s got not only the exact number of tracks (17), but the length of both albums is identical to the minute (both are well over an hour). But is the magic, or rather the magick, still there?
For the most part, definitely. At least some of that can no doubt be attributed to the return of guitarist John Frusciante, making this his third non-consecutive go-round with the Chili Peppers, following two previous stints which included the Blood Sugar era in the early ’90s. But Unlimited Love is by no means an attempt to re-create the band’s early kinetic punk-funk days, instead, ending up mostly as an exhibition of just how much the band has evolved as songwriters, dominated mostly by hook-driven pop tunes.
Throughout much of the album, the Chili Peppers seem to have the 1970s on the brain (even the title Unlimited Love is a play on a phrase commonly associated with disco crooner Barry White), as a number of the songs would be right at home on AM radio during “The Me Decade.” This includes the mellow funk of “Let ‘Em Cry”, which also boasts the album’s best chorus as well as some well-placed reggae influence (which can also be heard on the tight “Watcha’ Thinking”). “She’s a Lover” could be a musical half-sibling to “Brother Louie”, Hot Chocolate’s 1973 single (probably better remembered for the number one cover version by the Stories from the same year).
“Not the One”, which could have been one from Blue Oyster Cult in their heyday, might rate among Peppers’ all-time best ballads. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” features not only a very Frank Zappa-esque title but also some more mellow funk and even a somewhat twisted (yet somehow fitting) horn section. The lyrics name-drop several other musical artists (including the Misfits and X), an approach which is then expanded upon in “Poster Child”, a classic book-of-lists song that mentions everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Thompson Twins.
Though on several tracks lead singer Anthony Kiedis does the same talk-sing style that he has always been known for, on “One Way Traffic” he raps the verses in what sounds like an almost intentionally amateurish way, and in the end, the song becomes a nod to the rap tributes performed by early ’80s new wave acts like Blondie and the Tom Tom Club. Unlimited Love in general is a throwback in another sense: unlike their last release The Getaway, which welcomed numerous outside musicians (including Elton John and Danger Mouse), the new album – at least according to the credits – mostly features only the four members of the band.
But that’s definitely all one needs. Frusciante’s return is more than welcome, with his playing just as sharp as it’s always been known to be, while longtime drummer Chad Smith is also as tight as ever. And of course, there’s Michael Belzary, known the world over as Flea, who singlehandedly reinvented the role of the rock bassist and continues to do so here (though not to be outdone, he also plays piano and trumpet – yes, trumpet – on several tracks). Still, as evolved as much of the songwriting on the album is, a few songs come off as just confusing, such as “White Braids & Pillow Chair.”
Though unquestionably a classic, some have suggested that Blood Sugar Sex Magick and its seventeen tracks also set the precedent for putting as many songs on a CD as will fit, rather than weeding out the best songs for the approximate length of a traditional LP (and thus featuring only the strongest tracks). That does potentially become a bit of a problem here, too, which is how we end up with filler like “Veronica.” But already by this point, none of the album’s shortcomings appear to have hindered its success: Unlimited Love may well describe what the public still has for this band, since the album entered the charts at number one in at least ten countries, including the US and the UK. While no band’s run can ever be truly unlimited, the Red Hot Chili Peppers after nearly four decades show no signs of slowing down.