Kieran Lewis on why By the Way is his favourite album
Let’s face it, peddling an outlandish combination of scalding funk basslines and face-melting metal riffs in Hollywood clubs with nothing more than a sock to cover your modesty doesn’t exactly sound like a surefire way to launch a career of any kind. Despite the glaring improbability of it, I am beyond glad that it worked for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fast forward eighteen years, several line-up changes and assorted battles with addiction and not only were these Southern California oddballs still in one piece, they were poised to unveil a strikingly melodic, cohesive and unabashedly reflective meditation on their turbulent existence as a band.
2002’s By the Way is a snapshot of a band in their element and a masterclass in musical chemistry. For those unaware of the Peppers’ colourful history, introverted guitar virtuoso John Frusciante abruptly left the band in 1992 after a meteoric rise to fame. Although he rejoined in 1999, By the Way was only the second album the band produced since his return and it definitely sounds like he’s making up for lost time. Frusciante’s intricate riffs and often other-worldly backing vocals appear all over this sixteen-song affair with no shortage of artistic flair.
Make no mistake, though, this is not a one-man show. This is the Place may only be the second-best heroin confessional Anthony Kiedis has ever written, but it sets the tone for an album on which he pulls no punches as far as earnest emotion and lyrical honesty are concerned. Meanwhile in the rhythm section, drummer Chad Smith holds Frusciante’s Beach Boys-esque soundscapes together and the infamous Michael “Flea” Balzary consistently reminds us why he has risen above the typical anonymity associated with bassists. Smith and Flea know when to deploy their enviable speed and skill, but they almost deserve more praise for recognising when to restrain themselves, given the more mellow nature of the album.
Among the standout tracks is The Zephyr Song. A sharp contrast to the likes of Sir Psycho Sexy and other X-rated fan favourites from the band’s 1991 breakout Blood Sugar Sex Magik, this blissful offering is the closest the Chili Peppers have ever come to distilling their beloved California sunshine into a four-minute song. A strikingly sentimental Kiedis is no longer spitting a barrage of not so thinly-veiled innuendo, but instead spinning idyllic and almost twee tales of eloping with his sweetheart. Uncharacteristic though it may be, it’s a sure sign of a band that has–however reluctantly–left at least some of its trademark bravado behind and embraced a new, more mature artistic direction.
Further evidence of this can be heard in the meditative Tear, which punctuates the latter half of the album with some electric piano-infused life lessons. Using solitaire as a metaphor for emotional availability, Anthony Kiedis airs his personal insecurities with a tangible sincerity that would have been almost unthinkable during the early stages of the band’s career. If this kind of catharsis is beneficial for the lead singer himself, it is an absolute gift for the listener. It immediately differentiates it from their previous output. It is exactly this honesty that allows for the creation of Dosed, a bittersweet ballad with parallel guitar parts so intricate that only in 2017–eight years after John Frusciante’s second and final departure from the band–have they dared to play it live. This song simultaneously draws on the Chili Peppers’ collective experience with drug abuse and ill-fated relationships which, by all accounts, is quite extensive. The result is five minutes of swirling guitar and falsetto which could easily be about either.
By the Way may have celebrated its fifteenth birthday earlier this year but it has unquestionably stood the test of time. While there are still few better ways to inject some energy into a flagging crowd than turning on the lead single Can’t Stop, the album’s real legacy is to be found in its softer, more reflective side. It showcases a band that has gone to hell in a handbasket, survived, and reappeared sounding more creatively astute than ever.