Rediscovering: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik

So let’s continue that whole Rediscovering thing, since I’ve still yet to put this stack of CDs away. Last time, I seem to have stumbled upon my least favorite R.E.M. record, and this time, I’m digging into something no less mainstream but less traditionally what I tend to listen to: the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, from 1991.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik

My previous experience, if any

I’d heard the singles off this one going into it and I like them a lot, but in general, I’m not a Chili Peppers diehard. I did love Stadium Arcadium when I was little, and if I want my fix, I tend to reach for that one or maybe the rough mixes of Californication. Either way, given my (I’m pretty sure stolen) copy of this one’s been lying around since I was 14 and given the accolades this one’s stacked up since it came out, I was curious what I was missing.

The history lesson

The Chili Peppers started gaining traction in the late 80s with Mother’s Milk thanks to “Knock Me Down” and their cover of “Higher Ground”. Michael “I Fire Drummers” Beinhorn ran the boards for it, and forcing both Anthony Kiedis’ lyrical hand and John Frusciante’s playing hand with more “commercial” lyrics and a metal guitar tone left pretty much everyone unhappy. Instead, after hopping to a new label (funnily enough, Warner Bros., just like R.E.M.), they partnered with Rick Rubin, mostly then known for his work on golden age hip-hop albums and founding Def Jam, moved inside a haunted house, and recorded some 25 songs, the bulk of which make up Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Several of the singles off this thing, namely “Give it Away” and “Under the Bridge”, became instant hits.

Well?

First things first, it’s really nice listening to a pre-loudness war Chili Peppers. Being frequent collaborators with Rick Rubin tends to brickwall your masters, but thankfully, that mess started with One Hot Minute, not here. (The two Chili Peppers records I do really like, the aforementioned Californication and Stadium Arcadium, are both infamous for having brickwalled masters, though you can find rough mixes and a specially-mastered vinyl release respectively that do these infinitely more justice.) Instead, things are clear and even if the production is relatively nondescript, it’s got air in it at least.

Unfortunately, the heavier stuff tends to run together here, especially in the second half. It’s got kind of a monochromatic sound to it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I like Helmet after all), it’s mostly just that the grooves don’t really change a lot throughout the album. (That works against Helmet too, for the record.) It’s never unpleasant, even pretty damn cool at times, but it works a lot better in short bursts.

The softer stuff works a lot better and has a lot more color to it in general. For me, this one really starts at “Breaking the Girl”, which isn’t just the catchiest ballad on here, but has this improvised percussion break–no seriously, banging on junkyard bits–that comes out of nowhere and breaks up the cleanliness of the rest of the sounds. “I Could Have Lied” is as close to a hidden gem as you can get on a classic album, and it’s hard to think of a more iconic opening riff (in a decade full of them!) than the chords that start “Under the Bridge”. That could be a song all on its own and I’d wear it out.

Monochromatic sound aside, some of the heavier tracks do set themselves apart nicely, mostly thanks to John Frusciante. His singing and especially guitar playing are the nuclear options in the Red Hot Sex Dungeon, as evidenced by all their classic albums happening during his tenure and all the ones people wanna forget happening when someone else is on guitar. “The Righteous and the Wicked” is a perfect example of a song his presence massively improves. Of course, “Under the Bridge” is the same.

Not to say the other guys don’t also shine here. “Mellowship Slinky in B Major” starts at ridiculous with a title like that, but somehow, Anthony Kiedis’ vocals end up topping it in abject fuckery. Flea bass is Flea bass, you know what you get from him, but “Funky Monks” is fuckin’ sick. I’ve liked this one for a long time anyway. Just hearing it hurts my hand. Chad Smith mostly gets me with some of the patterns he plays; when he’s just supposed to be a rock-solid drummer, you don’t notice him much, but when he’s allowed to fill, like on “Breaking the Girl” or on “Suck My Kiss”, I find myself trying and failing to work out his sticking patterns.

One issue with this album is that it’s definitely not 74 minutes worth of material. Maybe it’s my lack of attention span, but nothing particularly noteworthy happens after “Under the Bridge”. Frankly, “Sir Psycho Sexy” being eight minutes long is kind of an insult to my patience, though that’s less to do with the song and more to do with the loaded tracklist. I mean, can you have sex for 74 minutes straight? Then how can you listen to songs about sex for 74 minutes straight? Maybe I’m just not a big funk-metal guy, who knows.

It’s not perfect, it’s overly long, and it’s not my favorite Chili Peppers, but I like it. I think I like these guys more when they’re doing ballads; I think of the tracks I return to the most off Stadium Arcadium, stuff like “Desecration Smile” and “She Looks to Me”, and they’re all ballads. Even when that album did go off (like on “Hump De Bump”), it felt better fleshed out and less cartoony than this one. I guess I like Sex Magik more for what it resembles than what it is, but it’s definitely not bad. “Breaking the Girl” alone has me sold.

Are you keeping it?

Yessir.

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