Red Hot Chili Peppers Bring New Energy to Their Classic Formulas on ‘Unlimited Love’

When Red Hot Chili Peppers emerged in 1984 as scantily-clad funk rock upstarts, they brought an energy that would invariably translate to some degree of stardom. It was only upon the recruitment of guitar hero John Frusciante, however, that they made their major breakthrough, channeling their funk and punk into more melodic formats that resonated widely and established them as icons. Frusciante departed after the band’s major breakthrough, 1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magic,” then returned for 1999’s “Californication,” for a stint lasting through 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium.” The latter album stood out for its panoramic survey of styles the band had explored since their inception. The same is true for “Ultimate Love,” the group’s first album with Frusciante in over fifteen years. It finds the band unconcerned with current trends in popular music. Luckily, their impact on the trajectory of popular music is so substantial that this is hardly an issue. 

Lead single “Black Summer” kicks off the album and immediately establishes the playful, intuitive approach that characterizes “Ultimate Love,” Frontman Anthony Kiedis sings with an Irish affectation of sorts, illustrating, “The night is dressed like noon / A sailor spoke too soon.” Presumably, this is Kiedis’ sailor’s voice. It’s an unabashedly silly way to begin, and the band runs with it, quickly erupting into a chorus with melodies and guitar work that bear Kiedis’ and Frusciante’s signatures, vaguely recalling bits of various previous hits. The straightforward rocker refers to the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, coincidentally overlapping with Covid-19. When Kiedis sings, “Waitin’ on another black summer to end,” with Frusciante making his presence clear, there’s an indication that the wait is over, with the return to a classic lineup representing a hopeful present. 

“Here Ever After” seems to further celebrate this in both its title and the Cure-influenced stylings that came with Frusciante’s last return to the band, on “Californication.” In a flash, Kiedis returns to the funk-rapping of the band’s earliest days. The alacrity with which the band reverts to their classic sounds steadily draws you in, and by the point of the next track, it has already reached a peak. “Aquatic Mouth Dance” is a winsome return to the band’s late ‘80s funk stylings that couldn’t sound more natural. The legendary personality behind the bass, Flea, carries the track with his rubbery slapping. Horns enter midway, and the song takes a free jazz turn that dramatically elevates the number, fleshing out the latent celebratory spark of the band’s funkier undertakings, and making for a highlight not only of the album, but of the band’s whole oeuvre. The wah-wah “Poster Child” is funkier yet, recalling tracks like “Walkabout” from 1995’s “One Hot Minute,” and especially capturing the band’s hive mind, as they settle effortlessly into an infectious groove. Kiedis sings with a steady one-two punch, taking particular liberties with vocals, cooing and cawing, and slickly easing into the chorus. 

Frusciante goes to town on “The Great Apes,” letting loose in a squelching, wailing flurry, essentially soloing from the bridges through the choruses, creating a primal animation that brings the lyrics to life. Kiedis sings, “It’s a pixelated panther, now let it purr,” and builds to a refrain of “I just want the great apes to be free.” “It’s Only Natural” continues in this vein lyrically, while the physicality of the music is fittingly brought to the forefront by expressive guitar and bass interplay. This escalates to dual soloing in the frolicking funk of “She’s a Lover,” with Kiedis revisiting the likes of “Suck My Kiss,” as Frusciante riffs off his inflections, bleeding and shredding as Flea holds down a colorful, elastic groove.

The lyrics take modest political overtones, while the music takes a heavier turn on “These Are the Ways,” a creatively structured rocker with plenty of teases, cathartic releases, muscular riffage, and a standout performance from drummer Chad Smith. The tracklist runs with an effective push and pull, snapping back into loose funk upon “Watchu Thinkin’.” It’s remarkable how in sync the band is on tracks like this, with an organic spontaneity to the music that fits the lyrics, about preemptively airing one another’s dirty laundry for more open interaction. The band explores new sounds on “Bastards of Light,” with lyrics that continue to obliquely explore human nature, conveyed by synths and heavy outbursts. Some unprecedented twang makes its way into both vocals and guitar on this and the subsequent track, “White Braids & Pillow Chair,” which strikes a balance between the band’s funky and melodic instincts, and culminates in something of an ode to California, set to cinematic Western stylings. 

Some upbeat, foolhardy funk follows on “One Way Traffic,” with a nonsensical chorus of “Ay-oh, way-oh / Would you be my traffic jam?” and an intricate bass solo outro from Flea. “Veronica” is a tempo-shifting, proggy excursion that nods to the central riff of the Beatles’ “I Want You,” and addresses the titular “Unlimited Love,” as Kiedis muses on the universality of empathy and affection. “Let ‘Em Cry” rings a bit like a sampler of Chili Peppers tropes, full of Kiedis’ trademark inflections, at moments especially echoing “By the Way’s” “Can’t Stop.” “The Heavy Wing,” on the other hand, features a rare instance of Frusciante taking up solo vocal duties upon the chorus. His love of the Cure makes its way into the music again, as do elements of recent years’ electronic undertakings, although they give way to his flashier instincts, as he goes haywire with wrenching guitar heroics. Finally, the stripped-down “Tangelo” elegantly brings the album to closure, with its plaintive progression and intimate vocal capturing the emotive potency of Kiedis’ singing in his softer moments.  

On “Unlimited Love,” Red Hot Chili Peppers revisit various sounds that have defined them over the years, dating from even before Frusciante first joined the group. It’s especially striking how vibrant they manage to sound when exploring the funk-centered stylings that characterized their earliest work. Naturally, the album draws more from the broader strain of alt-rock that began to emerge on “Blood Sugar Sex Magic.” But interspersed are also some eccentric moments that recall the experimentation of the “One Hot Minute” era. As the band racked up hits over decades, they released a fair share of somewhat formulaic singles. Yet, the formula was always one specific to the Chili Peppers, rather than based on greater trends in popular music. At this stage, an element of self-parody is virtually inevitable. That said, “Unlimited Love” is refreshingly inspired and uncontrived. It’s the sound of an exceptionally seasoned band that has effectively tapped into its hive mind. Fusciante’s return is a triumph, with his distinctive and innovative guitar stylings both recalling past glories and considerably spicing up the songs. A fresh start with a classic lineup has made for a judicious mix of fresh ideas and classic sounds.

Unlimited Love” releases April 1 on Apple Music.