Indulgence has long been a way of life for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, yet they resisted the siren's call of the double album until 2006's Stadium Arcadium. Sure, 1991's breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik was as long as a classic double LP, but such distinctions mattered little in the era when vinyl gave way to CD, and they matter less now, as the CD gradually gives way to digital-only releases. In fact, like how Blood Sugar was the tipping point when the LPs ceded ground to CDs, Stadium Arcadium could be seen as the point when albums were seen as a collection of digital playlists. Yes, it's pressed up as a two-disc set -- including an extravagant but pointless special edition housed in a clunky box that includes a make-yer-own-spinning-top -- but this is an album that's designed for you to mix and match, create your own playlist, rip and burn on your own. It's designed for you to sequence its 28 songs in some kind of cohesive manner, since the band sure didn't take the time to do that here; it's the first major album by a major band that makes as much sense on random as it does in its proper sequencing. Well, that's not entirely true: the official 28-song album does begin with "Dani California," the clearest single here, the one thing that truly grabs attention upon first listen and worms its way into your subconscious, where it just won't let go, as so much of Anthony Kiedis' catchiest melodies do. After that, it's a long, winding path of alternately spacey and sunny pop, ballads, and the occasional funk workout that used to be the Chili Peppers' signature but now functions as a way to break up the monotony. And there needs to be something to break up the monotony, not because the music is bad but because it all exists at the same level and is given a flat, colorless production that has become the signature of Rick Rubin as of late.
Rubin may be able to create the right atmosphere for Flea and John Frusciante to run wild creatively -- an opportunity that they seize here, which is indeed a pleasure to hear -- but he does nothing to encourage them to brighten the finished recording up with some different textures, or even a greater variety of guitar tones. As such, the bare-bone production combined with the relentless march of songs gives Stadium Arcadium the undeniable feel of wading through the demos for a promising project instead of a sprawling statement of purpose; there's not enough purpose here for it to be a statement. That fault is down to the band not forming the raw material into something palatable for the listener, but there's also the problem that as a lyricist Anthony Kiedis just isn't that deep or clever enough to provide cohesive themes for an album of this length; he tackles no new themes here, nor does he provide new insight to familiar topics. To his credit, he does display a greater versatility as a vocalist, cutting back on the hambone rapping that used to be his signature and crooning throughout the bulk of this album, usually on key. That said, he still has enough goofy tics to undercut his attempts at sincerity, and he tends to be a bit of a liability to the band as a whole; with a different singer, who could help shape and deliver these songs, this album might not seem as formless and gormless. But there is a fair amount of pleasures here, all down to the interplay between Flea and Frusciante. While drummer Chad Smith does prove himself quite versatile here, gracefully following the eccentric turns and meanderings of the bassist and guitarist, the string instruments are the reason to listen to Stadium Arcadium. That's always been the case to a certain extent with the Chili Peppers, but here it's especially true, as they push and pull, rave and rumble, lie back and rock out -- pretty much spit out anything they can do on their instruments over the course of 28 songs. As good as much of this is, there is a little bit of monotony here, since they're working variations on their signature themes, and they haven't found a way to make these variations either transcendent or new; they're just very good renditions on familiar themes. These tracks rarely betray their origins as studio jams -- more than ever, it's possible to hear that the track came first, then the song -- and while that can result in some good listening, it all does kind of drift together. That said, there are no bad tracks here -- it's all of a relatively high quality -- but there are no standouts either, so it takes a very dedicated fan to start sorting out the subtleties between the tracks (not the wheat from the chaff, since it's all wheat). And while those hardcore fans may certainly enjoy the make-your-own-adventure spirit of Stadium Arcadium, it's hard not to feel that it's the band's responsibility to take this very good repetitive album and mold it into something sharper and more effective. So call it the rock version of Peter Jackson's King Kong: there's something pretty great and lean buried beneath the excess, but it's so indulgent, it's a work that only a fanboy could truly love.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo