Sure, there aren’t many easier targets than Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics. But I come to praise Kiedis, not to bury him. This project — a deep dive into the libretto of the group’s new album The Getaway — comes from a sympathetic and nostalgic perspective; as I waltz toward 30, I’m in the right age group, after all.
RHCP’s brand of unfettered post-“I am the Walrus” drivel — the lyrical equivalent of going no-hands at the urinal — was standard practice during the time of RHCP’s emergence. From Kurt Cobain to Billy Corgan to Scott Weiland to Beck, everyone was happily penning nonsense, and we loved it. (Chickity china, the Chinese chicken and all that.)
Truthfully, the legendary Los Angeles band’s often deeply personal new album, The Getaway, is a collection of muted and tightly structured near-pop songs, sleekly rendered with the help of first-time RHCP producer Danger Mouse. Despite its subtler ambitions, the album delivers nearly all of the band’s classic musical tropes at one point or another. Circular, twangy sad-sack chord progressions are regularly overlaid on brash, syncopated bass riffs, though the riffs now rarely set the song’s entire tone. We get a handful of textbook Kiedis-raps (“We Turn Red,” first of all), and when the moment calls for it, he hones in on a soaring melody in the Californication/Stadium Arcadium lineage (this happens often).
But musically, some of the textbook RHCP trappings on The Getaway sound like floating, misplaced artifacts, tied irrevocably to the past. I can only imagine that, for a teenager today, listening to a song on the album might be like decoding a string of aural hieroglyphics. The professionalism and clarity of the album’s arrangements and production only accents how time-capsule-y Kiedis’ lyrical sensibility, and his sense of how a song can mean, is. It’s simply not the fashion anymore, unless you count Lil Yachty’s analogies — and maybe it doesn’t speak to our modern social and political reality in the way he might have hoped here.
This is not RHCP’s fault though, really. The album feels very honest, and very them. So here’s a roundup of some (couldn’t possibly deal with them all) of the most perplexing, Kiedis-core lyrics on The Getaway, with fondness.
“No time for the after thought they’re like/ Ice Cream for an Astronaut/ Well that’s me looking for we/ Turn the corner and/ Find the world at your command” — “Dark Necessities”
“Dark Necessities” is based around a on-the-nose, slap-happy Flea riff, mixed with all the brightness of Jonathan Wolff or an early Incubus joint. Add some soaring melancholic vocals, echoing Peter Bjorn and John handclaps, and a sea of guitar tapping and you’ve got, somehow, exactly what one might expect from a 2016 RHCP song. Kiedis probably bumps some Lorde these days, not to mention that new Tame Impala. But the thin layer of magik stank is still essential, to stop the vet RHCP heads from searching for their Best Buy receipts.
As for the verse, does the “we” apply to both the sentence before and the one after, or just the first? Kiedis probably knows the answer: Does a cat have an ass? It’s both, dog!
“A seemless [sic] little team/ And then we tanked/ I guess we’re not so sacrosanct” - “The Longest Wave”
I’m taking the “seemless” spelling directly from RHCP’s official transcription. I’m mostly including this passage for reference — as an example of one of the albums more cogent, but still compromised, lyrics. We can read this clearly as a poignant description of a dissolved relationship, in the aftermath of which Kiedis gets to think about he’s a decrepit middle-age guy now. That is to say, “sterile as the barrel/ Of an old 12 gage/ Under my skin.” One day, the “Annonated RHCP” volume will be published, with a forward from Karl Ove Knausgaard or Lydia Davis or Matt Pinfield, and we’ll get finally get some context.
“Tell me now, I know that it just won’t stop/ You will find your flow when you go robot/ I want to thank you and spank you upon your silver skin” - “Go Robot”
Kiedis rents Ex Machina on the tour bus; Flea puts down his paperback of The Magic Mountain, hits the yerba matte, and starts watching with him. RHCP here dissolves The Killers’ timeless dichotomy: We can be both “human” and “dancer.”
“Henry won the war you see/ but not with pen or sword/ He did it with the little thing I think it’s called a Ford” - “Detroit”
I keep trying to recite this in iambic pentameter. “Detroit” is a series of free associations, broken images of the city’s pop culture, industrial legacy, and damaged vistas. Ultimately, it boils down to a cathartic apology to a loved one in the final refrain: Kiedis is “crazy” just like “Detroit,” he admits. But hopefully, some startups and farm-to-fork pop-ups can gonna move into him, and get the gears creaking again; maybe they already have, and that’s what he’s trying to say. Maybe we’ll finally get a female president; maybe The Shallows will be good.
“Do you want to go fishing in New Orleans?/ Do you want to get up early in the morning?” - “We Turn Red”
Yeah, that sounds pretty good. How early though?