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Red Hot Chili Peppers are forever now

Somewhere between ‘Give It Away’ and the present day, they became the defining band of an era that rejects definition

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea performs at Nationals Park in Washington on Sept. 8 on the band's Global Stadium Tour. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

When the Red Hot Chili Peppers play “Give It Away” in 2022, it’s so easy to know where you are. You’re in your body, feeling all your neurons and ligaments transform into the same elastic superball stuff that they did the very first time you got smart, got down with the powwow.

What’s trickier is figuring out when you are. These men onstage? They are not young. But they don’t seem old, either. And if you fully commit your body to their music, you might feel the same. Anthony Kiedis wears a schoolboy haircut and a math teacher mustache, so when those giveitawaynows come rolling out of his mouth, they’re like muscle cars accelerating out of a carwash. Flea has the physique of a 20-something gym bro and a face that belongs on a coin, and he still plays his bass like he’s electrocuting himself with his own greatness. Chad Smith is keeping time in his paradoxically timeless way, playful and unflappable, boing-boing, bam-bam. And in the song’s final spasms of happiness, John Frusciante — dressed in loose ’90s skater clothes — gives the music a vivid twist, adding a descending sequence of chords that feels feathery and colorful, like a peacock pushed down the playground slide. It’s like he heard Kiedis do his carpe diem rap for the umpteen-hundredth time — “Never been a better time than right now!” — and decided to press a cool new wrinkle into the fabric of reality.

All music is made out of time, but the Chili Peppers might argue that theirs is made out of love. Don’t be afraid to wade into this metaphysical quicksand. You will touch bottom. On their fine new album, “Unlimited Love” — and live at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday night — the band’s sincerity has become so bedrock that their cultural durability feels like a foregone conclusion. Frusciante, forever the group’s melodic nucleus and spiritual nomad, is back in the mix after a 10-year absence, explaining in interviews that he was “born to be in the band.” That feels true, at least within the group, who, as a unit, resolutely believe in the concept of destiny. They talk about it all the time. They need a way to explain this inexplicable thing to themselves.

How do we explain it to ourselves? The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the defining American rock band of our era — which feels not exactly right, but also undeniable. They bum-rushed our collective consciousness roughly 30 years back alongside the more austere noise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, but as a band, they’ve stood taller for longer.

Still, their music continues to embody contradictions that don’t easily reconcile: vitality and vulgarity, tears and testosterone, life force and death drive. After so many years goofballing around the trapdoor to the void, they ultimately kept themselves from falling through it, and that feels like something to be honored. We just can’t decide whether to do it through dancing or crying.

Go ahead and search the rock-and-roll history books for some kind of precedent. At first, everyone said “Under the Bridge” was the “Stairway to Heaven” of the ’90s. Yeah, fine. But with 1999’s “Californication,” the Chili Peppers began to more closely resemble the Doors, channeling the Californian dark side into sumptuous melodies and bruise-purple poetry. And in recent years, they’ve become more like an echo of the Rolling Stones, borrowing the funk the same way the Stones borrowed the blues, living perilously for many years and surviving with a smile. By this logic, 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium” is their “Tattoo You” — not their last good album, but the last one to offer songs that felt zeitgeisty and inescapable.

When they played the best of them on Thursday night, “Dani California,” the word “California” formed in Kiedis’s mouth gradually and powerfully, like a rising wave, conjuring all of the hope and dread that repeatedly crashes on the shores of the Golden State, flooding the greater American psyche with fragmented visions of our collective future. California remains a vast and frightening idea inside the space of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, as well as a beautiful, capacious, highly musical word. (Did Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor just because people liked hearing him say it?) Maybe the Chili Peppers have been the dystopian Beach Boys all along.

Obviously, there’s no single template for this band. From the moment they formed in Los Angeles in 1983, their genealogy was all over the place. The band’s two founding principals, Kiedis and Flea, loved the Ohio Players, the Circle Jerks, Gang of Four and Grandmaster Flash, and they smooshed their tastes together to create a dialect of hybridized neo-funk more loquacious than hip-hop or hardcore punk.

Listen to the first three Chili Peppers albums in quick succession, and your thoughts will rhyme for a week. Kiedis is a self-described control freak, which is the best and only way to understand his unrepentant rhyming — a tic that instantly became a permanent component of the band’s musical architecture. His tongue has been in a race with Flea’s fingers ever since, and when your id moves faster than your mouth, those forced rhymes must become something like steppingstones.

Or, if their music wasn’t moving at id speeds, it was moving at punk speeds. During the regrettably titular refrain of “Catholic School Girls Rule” from 1985’s “Freaky Styley,” they’re essentially barking the guitar riff of Black Flag’s “Thirsty and Miserable.” Nearly four decades later, “Catholic School Girls Rule” sounds both thirsty and miserable, but if punk was about telling the truth, here was some music about telling the truth about how horny you are.

It would be obscene to say the Chili Peppers needed to experience tragedy to gain depth, but that’s how it went. When founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, the band regrouped with Frusciante and Smith and set about penning more introspective songs — an approach that eventually produced one of the most vibrant rock albums ever put to tape, 1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” Here, the foursome had mastered two antithetical modes, balancing gonzo funk (“Give It Away,” “Suck My Kiss”) with brutal balladry (“I Could Have Lied,” “Under the Bridge”) during which Frusciante routinely made his Stratocaster weep on Kiedis’s behalf.

Then Frusciante quit the band the following year, beginning his strenuous on-off relationship with the Chili Peppers, coming back from the depths of addiction for an astonishing three-album run — “Californication,” “By the Way,” “Stadium Arcadium” — and then after a decade away producing electronic music, making his second return on this year’s “Unlimited Love,” as well as the upcoming companion album, “Return of the Dream Canteen.” Whenever Frusciante is in this band, he sounds like the greatest rock guitarist drawing breath — born to be in it (destiny again) and hopefully born to stay in it this time, too.

And so these Chili Peppers remain instantly legible and profoundly complicated, totally visceral and borderline mystical. In Kiedis’s 2004 midlife memoir, “Scar Tissue” — its tales of misadventure and addiction probably making it the most salacious and tragic rock-and-roll story ever published — the frontman said this music was about “dancing and energy and sex.” Exactly right. Jump ahead to Flea’s 2019 memoir, “Acid for the Children,” and listen to how he describes his path as a “lifelong meditation on the concept of groove” and a search for an answer to “the question of how it relates to all of existence.” That’s exactly right, too. (The book is also filled with maxims you could spend your whole life trying to live by. Here’s one: “Everything that is not love is cowardice.”)

Onstage now, the band is all love, all courage, so deep in their life-groove, so tightly tucked in the pocket. They play their fast songs a little faster and their slow songs a little slower, making every moment feel realer than real. During an exquisitely patient rendition of “Soul to Squeeze,” Frusciante smears liquid melodies beneath his fingertips, translating explosive Jimi Hendrix language into something softer than melted bossa nova. Kiedis, surrounded by virtuosos, never blinks. Go ahead and have a laugh when he sings, “Doo-doo-doodle-dingle-zing-a-dong-bomp-ba-dee-ba-dah-ba-zumba-crunga-cong-gong-bad,” but don’t miss how he steps out of those nonsense syllables like some kind of lesson in fearlessness.

A heavier lesson: When Flea, Frusciante and Smith zip into the locomotive, Morse-coded riff of “Parallel Universe,” the video screen towering behind them flashes animated blobs that appear to be Calabi-Yau manifolds — complex mathematical models of extra-dimensions that are theoretically around us all the time. “Deep inside of a parallel universe,” Kiedis sings from the back of his lungs, “it’s getting harder and harder to tell what came first.”

He’s either singing about anything or everything, both of which include the possibility that he’s singing about a band wrongly defined by its contrasts instead of its concurrences; a band that continues to create something crass and poetic, insatiable and wise; a band no longer at their highest heights, but certainly at their broadest breadth; the definitive band of an era when rock-and-roll might be dead and life’s chaos refuses definition.

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