February 8, 2017 by NowhereButPop
Imagine being deprived of sleep for about 96 hours, and then forced to go to a warehouse rave in the middle of Brooklyn. That’s kinda what the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2011 album, I’m With You, sounds like—something that wants to be spirited and bouncy, but lacking any energy whatsoever. After 10 albums and nearly 30 years together, the band is finally starting to show its age in the worst possible way by trying to masquerade as guys half their age. There’s nothing wrong with growing old, unless you pretend that it isn’t happening, which is exactly what I’m With You is in a nutshell. The fact of the matter is that the Chili Peppers made an album that they thought the Chili Peppers would make.
It’s very difficult to discern what exactly the band was trying to accomplish on their 2011 opus as the majority of the songs lack energy and sound strangely inorganic inasmuch as there doesn’t seems to be any real effort put into the album’s construction. Maybe it contributes to the lethargic sound of the album, but on I’m With You, the band really struggles to figure out what kind of direction they want to take in the absence of longtime guitarist John Frusciante. New guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, provides a sound that’s way too atmospheric for the band as tracks like “Meet Me at the Corner”, “Police Station”, and “Annie Wants a Baby” are uncharacteristically spacey for a band that once grounded themselves in blood, sugar, sex, and magic. When he tries to solo on songs like “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” and “Did I Let You Know”, it sounds more like the band is murdering porpoises than an actual guitar”.
But on tracks like “Monarchy of Rose”, “Ethiopia”, “Even You Brutus”, and “Brendan’s Death Song”, the four best songs on the album, the Chili Peppers once again sound as earthly and sincere as ever. The fact remains that the Chili Peppers are a band that functions best when their head isn’t in the clouds, and all too often on I’m With You the band seems more concerned with the clouds overhead than with the ground beneath their feet.
What this all really means is that I’m With You isn’t a very human album; there’s a lack of sincerity that leads us to believe that the band recorded most of these songs for the sake of making an album. On songs like “Look Around” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”, the band sounds restrained, as if they want to bust loose with unbridled zest, but are unable to. Unlike songs from Californication such as “This Velvet Glove” and “Emit Remmus”, delicate songs that succeeded without the band’s patented funk-punk sound, songs on I’m With You, like “Dance, Dance, Dance”, “Look Around”, and “Goodbye Hooray” are energetic up-tempo songs, but don’t have enough energy, as if the band couldn’t quite muster up the strength necessary to follow through on these songs. The Chili Peppers still want to write bombastic, maniacal songs, but they just don’t have the wherewithal anymore to execute properly, and the self-delusion that pervades I’m With You over this inconvenient truth adds to the uneven nature of the album.
Frontman Anthony Kiedis has never been a particularly strong lyricist, often relying on nonsensical wordplay over poignant lyrics, but on I’m With You, the inanities reign free. Lines such as “Be my wife, I think you’re right that we should mate, Tell your friends, I got a factory of faith”, “Sugar daddy, loves her madly, Cosmo Shiva, got off made you a believer” and “Tick-tock I want to rock you like the 80s, cock-blocking isn’t allowed” reflect the lazy songwriting that plagues most of the tracks on the album. Whereas in the past, Anthony Kiedis’ lyrics were a fun brand of nonsense, this time around they sound like complete and utter nonsense to Kiedis himself. Just like the music itself, so too do the lyrics come across as uninspired and disjointed.
I’m With You isn’t an egregious album; it’s just not a fun album. I think that the Chili Peppers really didn’t know what they wanted to do with this album in the wake of John Frusciante’s (second) sudden departure from the band. So, they just made the album that they thought they should have made. Flea once mentioned how the major themes on the album are life, death, and betrayal, and on some songs these themes shine through. Given those themes, it feels as though the album should have been more somber and pensive than it actually was. Sonically, I’m With You sounds like it wanted to occupy a space between Californication and By the Way, but instead it comes across more like a collection of b-sides from U2’s Pop.
There are some bright spots on I’m With You that provide more clarity and insight into what the band hoped to accomplish with this album. The opening track, “Monarchy of Roses” begins with a slow chaotic buildup until the chorus explodes into a cascade of disco delight. After the mishap that is “Factory of Faith”, comes “Brendan’s Death Song” and “Ethiopia”, the beautifully rendered 1-2 punch representing the cycle of death and rebirth. “Brendan’s Death Song” is a hauntingly beautiful tribute to a recently deceased friend of the band, and features the band’s most delicate guitar riff since “Scar Tissue”. Anthony Kiedis gives his most impassioned effort on the album when he muses during the song’s climax “Let me live so when it’s time to die even the reaper cries, let me die so when it’s time to live another song will rise”. If any one song from I’m With You were to make an appearance on a Greatest Hits compilation it would be “Brendan’s Death Song”.
“Ethiopia”, the most chipper song on the album is a sweet tribute to Anthony Kiedis’ son, as made evident by the line “Tell my boy I love him so, tell him so he knows”. It’s bouncy bassline and afro-inspired rhythms produce an unexpectedly pleasant romp that’s lacking elsewhere on I’m With You. Whereas “Death Song” represents the just that, “Ethiopia” is a vibrant celebration of a new life just beginning to bloom.
I’m With You faces a severe identity crisis as it doesn’t know what kind of album it wants to be. Does it want to be an indie album? Or a dance album? Or maybe it tried to be the sequel to By the Way. The album never comes together because most of the songs lack direction and heartfelt zest. If anything, this album showed the band that it was time to part ways with longtime producer Rick Rubin, as he no longer challenged them in any meaningful way. As a quick aside, I will say this: I think if the album was produced by David Bowie (who originally petitioned the band to produce Californication, it would have been much better. Instead though, after five long years of waiting for new RHCP material we got an unfocused and poorly executed album with few bright spots.