Monday, March 28, 2011

Back When Alternative Was Alternative (Sort Of) And Red Hot Chili Peppers Broke Out: Blood Sugar Sex Magik!

The Good: Some interesting lyrics, Moments of composition, Duration
The Bad: A LOT of noisy, unmemorable songs
The Basics: Rock at a time when pop was lighter, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is much less impressive in retrospect.

I almost never look at other reviews of an album or product before I review it; it tends to leave me most focused on my own perceptions of a work, as opposed to simply glomming onto other opinions or views. Honestly, though, it surprised me quite a bit to see such universal praise for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (sic, they spell "Magik" this way, not me!). So, it might seem like I am being deliberately contrarian when I write a review that pans the album, especially as Red Hot Chili Peppers were my Artist Of The Month, but the truths are: 1. I did not like this album anywhere near as much as anyone else I know and 2. The few songs on it worth hearing are on their compilation albums, most notably their Greatest Hits album.

My wife wanted me to mention right off the bat that despite my willingness to objectively review albums by David Bowie and my general feeling of being underwhelmed by one of her favorite songs, "Sir Psycho Sexy" on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, she will not be leaving me (so keep those comments to yourself!). Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released when I was in high school and it was one of many albums I never heard when it was new (I still haven't heard a single full Nirvana album!) and my only memory at the time was that I remember being cheesed that "Under The Bridge" kept Sophie B. Hawkins's song "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" from ascending higher on the charts. So, now that I've listened to Blood Sugar Sex Magik thirteen times, I find myself even less impressed by the breakout of the Red Hot Chili Peppers into the mainstream (I could have waited for Californication myself). "Under The Bridge" may have made the band a household name, but objectively, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is not the best album ever and despite its duration, there is a sense of monotony to it.

With seventeen songs occupying 73:50 on c.d., Blood Sugar Sex Magik is very much the work of Red Hot Chili Peppers. The now-recognizable quartet of Flea, Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante and Chad Smith wrote all but the final song and they play all of the major instruments on the album. Producer Rick Rubin began his successful collaboration with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on this album and has stuck with them for many of their most successful endeavors. Given how Rubin is credited as being creatively open-minded, it is hard not to argue that Blood Sugar Sex Magik is very much the intended work of the band.

The problem is, especially in retrospect, that Blood Sugar Sex Magik sounds very much like a traditional rock and roll album with a punk/funk edge to it. The album is a combination of Kiedis' voice, which is not always clear, and the very traditional guitar, bass, and drum combination that defines virtually every American garage band. With a parental advisory because of numerous uses of the "f-word" throughout the album, this album is very much not what those who loved "Under The Bridge" are likely to buy it for. Instead of being mellow, most of the album sounds loud and angry. Even songs that start with a real melody or theme, like "The Righteous & The Wicked" degenerate into angry guitars and pounding drums.

Instrumentally, Blood Sugar Sex Magik suffers because so many of the songs are alike. The guitar, bass, drum combination gets very tired on the album as the Red Hot Chili Peppers compose so many of their songs in similar fashions. As a result, songs like "Suck My Kiss" and "Sir Psycho Sexy" actually sound quite similar with their instrumentation and the way the vocals are performed. Also, "I Could Have Lied" has the same vibe as "Under The Bridge" with the softer guitars, more dominant bass and lighter drums. They are exceptions on the album, but the exceptions sound so similar to one another. As well, many of the songs have the guitars played fast and loud with the bass and drums pounding right behind, so the feel of the album is remarkably consistent. The musical accompaniment is rather unimaginative and the only explanation for why this would be considered "alternative" at the time was that the traditional rock and roll combo was on the outs, replaced in mainstream pop with the keyboards in the late '80s/early 1990s.

Anthony Kiedis has a decent voice that stays mostly in the tenor range, though he does go lower on some of the tracks. On Blood Sugar Sex Magik, he varies between articulate and singsong in his presentations and almost inarticulate. "Suck My Kiss" is performed angrily, "Sir Psycho Sexy" has him as a vulgar storyteller and he mumbles through so much of "Under The Bridge" that I suspect a part of the reason it was so popular was that people just were trying to hear it more times to catch more lines. Unfortunately, even when Kiedis performs admirably, like making the fast-sung lines on "Give It Away" comprehensible, often the lyrics are so inane that one wishes they were not so clear so they would not be so embarrassingly simple.

Take, for example "Funky Monks, with its lines of "There are no monks in my band / There are no saints in this land / I'll be doing all I can / If I die an honest man / Confusion is my middle name / Ask me again I'll tell you the same / Persuaded by one sexy dame / No I do not feel no shame." The diction is simple and the rhymes are obvious. Unfortunately, the band sticks to such banal style when singing about some actually interesting and engaging concepts. It is rare, for example, for a rock band to sing about rejecting capitalism and material things, but Red Hot Chili Peppers do that with the rock nursery rhyme "Give It Away."

The songs are not all bad lyrically; "Naked In The Rain" is poetic and respectful as Kiedis sings about being grateful for all he has. And the classic "Under The Bridge" perfectly characterizes loneliness when Kiedis sings "It's hard to believe / That there's nobody out there / It's hard to believe / That I'm all alone / At least I have her love / The city she loves me / Lonely as I am / Together we cry." When the singers aren't presenting advanced dirty limericks ("Sir Psycho Sexy") they actually have a talent for writing.

But largely, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a traditional and somewhat boring rock album with songs that are less distinct than most listeners acknowledge. Instead, it remains a great example of how sometimes being different from the current trends helps a group strike it big (though, ironically, they did it with the most conventional single from the album) and the album endures because of the associations with it as opposed to the inherent qualities of it. The best songs (and quite a few more) are available on other albums, making it very easy to avoid this one.

The best track is "Under The Bridge," the low point is the ridiculous "They're Red Hot."

For other works by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, please check out my reviews of:
Mother's Milk
Soul To Squeeze (single)
"Otherside" (single)
By The Way
Greatest Hits And Videos
The Best Of Red Hot Chili Peppers
Stadium Arcadium


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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