May has been a big month for mainstream rock, with high-profile releases by Pearl Jam, Tool, and Jack White’s Raconteurs racking up blockbuster sales and claiming pop-cultural real estate reserved more often these days for Kevlar-clad rappers. Each reveals its maker’s aspirations toward Importance, but none more openly than Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros.), the new 28-song double-disc set from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
CITY SCHEMES: Proud products of a city defined by sprawl, the Peppers sound as if they were trying to fit all of LA onto an album.
On the one hand, the Chili Peppers’ bid for Significance — and if rock has demonstrated anything over the past five decades, it’s that the double album is just such a bid — shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, they’ve been showing us their serious side regularly since ’91, when they broke out of their party-hearty punk-funk niche with “Under the Bridge,” a tender guitar-pop number about frontman Anthony Kiedis’s debilitating heroin addiction. Nearly all the Peppers’ subsequent hits — particularly those recorded with mad-genius guitarist John Frusciante, who rejoined in 1998 after dropping out for a few years to deal with his own addiction — have followed the “Under the Bridge” folk-ballad mold: “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” “By the Way.”
Still, few bands have perfected the art of informality like this group of millionaire SoCal surf bums. (If the Peppers were an actor, they’d be Keanu Reeves.) And a double album — loaded with rock-canonical connotations of ambition and excess — is anything but casual. So how does an outfit perhaps best known for mistaking tube socks for boxer shorts fare in such a setting? Not bad at all.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Stadium Arcadium is too long. As he did last year on twin albums by System of a Down, producer/guru Rick Rubin seems to have encouraged the band to follow every one of their impulses. On the System CDs, that open-minded approach yielded ultra-dense compositions full of stylistic twists and turns. Here it results in the kind of creative bloat double albums are famous for. Part of the power of “Under the Bridge” was that it existed on the same album with “Suck My Kiss” and “Give It Away.” Next to an overflowing handful of similar-sounding tunes, a radio-ready gem like “Dani California” (Stadium’s first single) loses its luster.
In a way, though, Stadium — which debuted last week at the top of the Billboard 200 — works because of that overabundance. Proud products of a city defined by sprawl, the Peppers sound as if they were trying to fit all of LA onto an album. The result is not meant to be listened to from beginning to end. Stadium might be the first double album designed for the iPod era, its desultory sequencing encouraging a tourist approach to the material.
And though there’s too much of it, there’s a clean, uncluttered economy to the music that keeps refreshing the ear. It’s a joy, for instance, to hear Frusciante lay a gorgeous jazz-pop riff over Flea’s mellow bass line in “Hey,” which closes the first disc. Dozens of similar small pleasures make Stadium a success. The Chili Peppers, it would seem, have earned their standing one brick at a time.