Reunions are tricky. No matter how much someone prepares to see someone else they haven’t seen for years, it’s always a bit awkward at first. How do you start? What do you talk about? And why did it take so long to come back around to each other? People can dart around the awkwardness for a bit but eventually, the best thing to do is just lay everything on the table. Talk about the good, the bad and the wild things that happened in between the last meeting and the new meeting. There will be some messy parts, things that can’t be explained and moments people want to take back. Even if the whole experience doesn’t have an immediate happy ending, at least it’s a step in the right direction.
That’s the best way to take Unlimited Love and, more specifically, John Frusciante’s return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It could be said that the multi-talented guitarist helped mature the California kings of cock rock when he joined back in 1989 (at the age of 18, mind you), writing songs with soaring melodies and glowing solos that made room for the rest of the band to grow up. Frusciante has left and now returned to the Chili Peppers twice in different decades and both times, the band found themselves searching rather than settling. With Dave Navarro, who replaced Frusicnate from 1993 to 1998, the band tried to trip out and power through the loss of their friend on 1995’s heavy but murky One Hot Minute. With Josh Klinghoffer, who was promoted from backup touring guitarist to full-time player from 2010 to 2019, the boys started to realize how little time they had left as a band and compensated by experimenting with weirder arrangements (2011’s I’m With You) and more contemplative lyrics (2016’s The Getaway).
So now with Unlimited Love, the reunited Chili Peppers have seemingly laid out every idea they could possibly think of. Once again produced by Rick Rubin (who skipped on producing The Getaway and Danger Mouse filling that void), the band’s 12th record is 73 minutes of four friends just jamming away their problems. No, this isn’t the guys who made “Give It Away” trying to be Phish, it’s just the band playing everything they know regardless if it fits with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” has a weird Latin rhythm and groove crafted to accommodate the motormouth sing-rap style of Kiedis while “White Braids & Pillow Chair” and “Not the One” are tributes to the psychedelic sound of Echo Canyon in the late 60s. The former is better than the latter, with more relaxed guitar chords and progression compared to the other’s snail’s pace that puts the listener to sleep.
“Poster Child” might be the jazziest song the Peppers have ever done, thanks to more subtle guitar work from Frusciante. His layers of funky notes have Kiedis’s singing mimicking him with Flea and drummer Chad Smith fill the space with their impeccable rhythmic chemistry. It also shows that maybe Kiedis’s singing style is more influential than we think, as his quixotic wordplay and delivery can be heard in other quirky modern rappers. “Whatchu Thinkin’” is the most fun the band and the listener have with the album, propelled by Kiedis riding the beat of Flea’s bass that sounds like it’s soundtracking a Pink Panther cartoon before Frusciante rips into another of his trademark Hendrix-esque solos. They also have fun just letting the sounds of their instruments circle around each other in jams, especially with “The Heavy Wing” where Frusciante’s psychedelic passions clearly inspired the spacey vocals and his trippy guitar work.
This is certainly not the Chili Peppers of old, neither the band of Frusciante’s last tenure or the band of their last two albums. The classic Chili Peppers rhythm is still there, as Flea and Smith still create one of the best backbeats in the history of rock. There are even hints of Klinghoffer’s style peppered into the background of some songs (“Bastards of Light,” “She’s a Lover”), which is reassuring to know how much he meant to the band in Frusciante’s absence. But the band is clearly working their solo aspirations out together, as if they’re on the verge of coming back together again. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on their musical therapy sessions while the bandmates work out what in the hell they’re gonna do in their second or third life together.
While the ideas thrown at the wall are unique, they don’t always stick, let alone coalesce. Unlimited Love doesn’t have one cohesive sound like Stadium Arcadium or even The Getaway had. And even with all the different types of song structures, it doesn’t take major stylistic turns either. Rubin might be to blame as he keeps the Chili Peppers sound beefed-up through all 17 tracks instead of letting certain songs be quieter or letting big moments build into something worthy of head banging.
Lead single and album opener “Black Summer” sounds like a Stadium Arcadium b-side left on the cutting room floor and despite Rubin letting Frusciante build up to a classic “Dani California”-like solo, it doesn’t leave much to be desired. “Not the One” is the lesser Echo Canyon tribute for having a weak vocal performance in need of some better background harmonies. Kiedis has had his moments as a singer, but his voice has never been called “pretty” and it certainly won’t be in his elder years. “The Great Apes” is a swirling five-minute jam that proves Frusciante, Flea and Smith are still skillful musicians, but this is something that could’ve been edited down or cut entirely (especially when the far superior jam “It’s Only Natural” is the very next song).
People looking to typical Chili Peppers fare might get some enjoyment out of the bouncy “She’s a Lover,” even if it sounds closer to something off I’m With You than Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It’s a shame the album doesn’t end on the mighty jam on “The Heavy Wing,” and instead goes out on the soft ballad “Tangelo” which has a bit too much production polish on it for it to be an effective closer. The Chili Peppers are no strangers to lengthy albums (Unlimited Love is almost the same length as Blood Sugar Sex Magik), but this doesn’t need to be 17 tracks long.
As always, Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics are as hard to describe as they are to heat enunciated through Kiedis. Still, you can hear how the reunion has made Unlimited Love a nostalgic affair to write songs about. Take “Veronica,” where Kiedis seemingly splits his reflections on a love that came and went through three third-person perspectives, the final being love itself (“I come from the same place as everyone/Just lucky to be here”). Even as he sings about the end of his “passionate friend” the band repeats “Been a long time now” and “I don’t want it to be.” The nostalgia is ever present on “Aquatic Mouth Dance” and “Poster Child,” where Kiedis spits out rhymes about how Grandmaster Flash and Siouxsie and the Banshees got the band “Growin’ out of the fertile dirt” to start rocking, or how he sees infinite possibilities of love in a world where “Bernie Mac and CaddyShack were dusty as the bricker brac.” But love is the driving force behind this reunion and, therefore, Unlimited Love, with Kiedis and co. spinning more tales about mysterious ladies and the spells they put on the boys. “Whatchu Thinkin’” details a wild romp through the western mountains where Kiedis says he could be a “beneficial friend” before he wants to spend the night with a “loaded cobra” that’s “no finer place to kiss” on “White Braids & Pillow Chair.” Three things in life remain inevitable: death, taxes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers being horny.
And yet, the album closes with two moments that can be seen as Frusciante really reconnecting with the band and vice versa. “The Heavy Wing” sounds like communication from Frusciante, especially as he sings the chorus about how he “come[s] slow now for everything” and “bleed[ing] into your pleasantries.” Those pleasantries to Frusciante are “the memory” and “the chemistry,” both those things clearly found in his time with the band and what he wants to find again regardless of how much time has passed. “Tangelo” has Kiedis (and likely Flea and Smith) responding back in how much they miss a lost love. Kiedis sings about not feeling like “the shadow of someone else” and instead like a “life force inside to do anything.” It’s clear that even in the worst of times (“And the smile of a knife is seldom befriending”), the band had the distinct feeling that “the dream of this love never died.”
If you’re expecting a triumphant return of the classic Red Hot Chili Peppers, Unlimited Love ain’t it. With the differing musical ideas scattered throughout the album and the relaxed performances on each song, it’s clear the reunited Chili Peppers don’t have the strongest momentum to kick out the jams just yet. The musical synergy amongst the band is still there, thankfully, and Frusciante still knows how to be the anchor (or the star) of a Chili Peppers song with his guitar. The problem with Unlimited Love is that it sounds more like a jam rehearsal session rather than a complete album. It actually has more in common with I’m With You than Stadium Arcadium, with the former being a band trying to adjust to their new guitar player’s tendencies. Maybe the Peppers have one more raucous record in them and perhaps they’ll get their groove back when (if at all) they hit the road in the near future. For now, it’s interesting to hear them coming back into each other’s orbit even if they haven’t exactly realigned…yet.