Better known for wearing socks on their privates than for being deep or even coherent thinkers, the Peppers don’t actually have much to say about death, though they appear to be against it. Produced by Rick Rubin, whose capacity to make usually cheerful artists sound suicidal is unequaled, “I’m With You” is the band’s first release since 2006’s benevolently bloated two-disc set “Stadium Arcadium.” It’s part beach blanket rave-up, part serious-minded examination of loss: of youth, of innocence and, implicitly, of guitarist John Frusciante, the primary driver of their funk-meets-pop-meets-sledgehammer sound, who left the band before the album was recorded.
Frusciante’s replacement, sideman Josh Klinghoffer, is subtler and less obtrusive than his predecessor. Without Frusciante’s spiky, squalling guitar, “I’m With You” is milder and less emphatic than any previous Peppers disc, and more experimental.
Although “Exile on Main Street”-era Stones are the acknowledged model here, it’s an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet of preposterous noise with the unspoken credo: Why not? Mix classic metal with fiesta horns (on “Did I Let You Know,” the disc’s most spectacular train wreck)? Of course! Kick off the album with a track whose calamitous opening seconds suggest not a band leaning into a comeback but a band being chased by bears (“Monarchy of Roses”)? Makes sense!
For all their increasing virtuosity, the Peppers have always had limitations — their lyrics are a dadaist nightmare of new age Deep Thoughts, knotty triple-entendres and received surfer wisdom, and frontman Anthony Kiedis’s vocals, well, they’re not for everyone. Also, all Red Hot Chili Peppers albums sound like they were made in 1989. They can’t help this. When, on the bleating, cowbell-centric first single, “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” Kiedis sings, “I want to rock you like the Eighties,” he’s not being nostalgic, he’s just letting you know.
“I’m With You” may not deliver a knockout punch like “Under the Bridge” or “Suck My Kiss,” but unlike Pearl Jam, Radiohead or any number of their peers, there’s a certain innate outsize-ness to the Peppers that makes their most torpid piano ballad sound like a stadium singalong circa 1992. The Peppers are still big. It’s the hooks that got smaller.
Recommended Tracks: “Monarchy of Roses,” “Brendan’s Death Song,” “Did I Let You Know”