The story’s been told: heroin-ravaged fame-hating guitar genius fights back from the brink and finds enlightenment in his new awakening. But John Frusciante’s always been something more than the tortured musician caricature; at the core of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a beautifully tragic enigma whose life truly was saved by music, and you can hear it in just about every sound he makes on the guitar.
The Chili Peppers are on a break, but by no means does that suggest that Frusciante will be taking one. In fact, he’s about to release his 10th solo album, The Empyrean, through the indie Record Collection label. Recorded over a two year period at his Laurel Canyon home, the album features appearances by a gospel choir, a string quartet, Johnny Marr and RHCP bassist Flea, among others, and is far and away the most cohesive, impressive solo work he’s put together.
Having returned from the hells of a heroin addiction that almost claimed his life a little more than a decade ago, John’s woven his inimitable songwriting psychedelics into tales of supernatural experiences, of interacting with spirits and extra-dimensional beings on other planes of reality, of the birth, life and death of love in a world of tragedy. This could all be dismissed as the lunatic new-wave spacetalkings of a junkie who saved himself in time to see himself become a legend, and when you break it down there’s not much arguing otherwise. But the man is on a hell of a wave, and it’s certainly working for him- so much so that he released six wildly different solo albums in 2004, making just about every other musician alive look like a lazy ass.
Much like the rest of his solo work, The Empyrean serves as a snapshot of philosophical and spiritual outpourings from the man’s own head. He calls it a concept album (about two characters that exist in the mind of one person over the course of a lifetime, and… well, read the whole thing from the horse’s mouth over at JohnFrusciante.com), but it essentially boils down to a narrative about the struggle for validation through creation, of facing loss and death amidst a celebration of spirituality.
The first track was off-puttingly hypnotic, sounding to me like a million recordings I did in my early twenties while stoned out of my head in my living room. Nine minutes of echoes, feedback and sparse electric soul plucking. Granted, I’m intentionally overlooking the obvious Maggot Brain influence here, but it’s a sleeper for sure, and a strange choice for an opener.
Every song that follows, however, is a testament to John’s significant growth as a composer and singer since his blizzard of releases in 2004. His guitar virtuosity has never been in question, but John also seems to have become the Mel Blanc of vocalists, utilizing an array of voices that even eclipses the singer at his day job.
John’s cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren is a gorgeous, sad understatement that’s entirely free of guitar, relying on the sparse, desperately delicate narrative. I’m as troubled as the tide doesn’t sound as pretentious as it should, coming from a spirit such as John’s. Given the context, it’s actually kind of heartbreaking. Ironic, given that the album’s title is pulled from a term used by Danté, Milton and Keats to describe the highest point in heaven.
John likes his reverb, as evidenced on the aptly-named Dark/Light, a track that starts out as a piano-led, dreamy, life-ending reflection and warps into some strange Casio beat falsetto jam that’s not a far cry from Gnarls Barkley. The gospel choir, the swinging bass groove, the Timberlake whimpers- on paper it’s a nightmare, but it somehow finds a context in the midst of an album that skips around so many styles and genres you’re never able to get too comfortable in one place. The record is endlessly shifting, refusing to settle on one particular emotion or atmosphere for too long. Layers of dissonance are stacked thick with magnetic melodies, and it can be easy to lose track of what grabs you more at times- the song’s frayed wires or its anchors. But there are plenty of both, a true indication of the versatility of a man who’s completely devoted his life to his craft.
Unreachable sounds like a cousin to his Going Inside from To Record Only Water For 10 Days, only with added drums and a more upbeat tempo. It’s a snap-step track with a strangely flavored meat on its bones that’s equal parts psychedelics and raw passion. The solo shows all the signs of a true Jimi disciple, and that’s by no means a bad thing. Frusciante builds on throbbing Hendrix wahs, a swirling bassline and a climbing lead riff for a beautifully melodic ending.
Central is the only track that had me wishing for the full Chili Peppers treatment, despite being a soaring high point in the record. His vocals on the excellent God, meanwhile, is good enough to send Anthony Keidis back to falsetto camp. From the People, you blaspheme my name line onward, it becomes unmistakably clear where the bulk of the Chili Peppers’ magic comes from.
The vocals are sometimes over-effected, and it’s certainly not casual listening material, but the spirit, innovation and ambition within make for nothing short of an outstanding record. If you’re looking to get into the man’s dense catalogue of solo work, it might be good to start with The Empyrean and think of it as the sum of all the parts that came before it.
January 27, 2009
1. Before The Beginning
2. Song To The Siren
7. Enough Of Me
9. One More Of Me
10. After The Ending
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.