It’s a little strange that the Red Hot Chili Peppers recently entered their fourth decade with their audience (and vital organs, sock-covered and otherwise) still mostly intact. The white-boy frat-funk of the band’s self-titled 1984 debut hardly seemed to herald the arrival of an all-time enduring rock band. But other than U2, no band from the alternative era has managed to stay at the center of mainstream rock as long as the Chili Peppers. If anything links these two persistently popular outfits—other than peaking artistically in 1991 with, respectively, Achtung Baby and BloodSugarSexMagik, and making do with increasingly meager diminished returns ever since—it’s an unerring survival instinct. Even after the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak and the departures of drummer Jack Irons and on-again, off-again guitarist John Frusciante (not to mention his numerous replacements, most notably Dave Navarro), the Chili Peppers are still standing, and sounding more or less like themselves with their first album in five years, I’m With You.
That’s good news for the Chili Peppers, who once again prove adept at turning out mid-tempo, boilerplate modern-rock tracks like “Brendan’s Death Song” and “Ethiopa,” which should keep I’m With You on the radio for the next couple of years. But it’s not so great for new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, whose muscular playing is a far cry from the brittle melodicism Frusciante was known for, and not nearly as distinctive. Perhaps that’s why I’m With You leans so heavily on the rhythm section, flirting with Giorgio Moroder disco grooves on “Monarchy Of Roses” and full-blown dance-pop on “Dance, Dance, Dance.”
But while Flea remains an appealingly agile bassist, his playing on I’m With You is as shticky as Anthony Kiedis’ limp lover-man scat, which reaches its nadir on the dippy “Did I Let You Know” when he sings, not-so-seductively, “I’d like to get inside your mass production.” Given how professional yet lifeless I’m With You is, it makes sense that Kiedis would want to fuck an assembly line.
Much like Bono—who donned his old black leather suit from the early ’90s on U2’s latest tour—Kiedis and Flea have a vested financial interest in playing roles they’ve long outgrown. But as the forgettable I’m With You shows, there’s a difference between surviving and thriving.