When I first started listening to music back in the summer of 1999, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album Californication was released, and it was quite popular, selling some 16 million copies worldwide. I didn’t buy that album until ten years later, but considering that my alternative rock station relentlessly played no less than five songs from it — “Scar Tissue,” “Around the World,” “Parallel Universe,” “Otherside,” and “Californication” — and pretty much all of my friends had the album, I was no stranger to it. I was completely unaware at the time, however, of the band’s breakthrough smash Blood Sugar Sex Magik, released on September 24, 1991 in the United States, the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind. It wasn’t until much later that I would discover that Blood Sugar Sex Magik, along with Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten (released four weeks earlier) had defined ’90s rock.
Sure, I knew the hits — “Under the Bridge,” “Breaking the Girl,” “Suck My Kiss” and especially the rather… distinctive “Give It Away” — but this 74-minute, 17-track behemoth was largely uncharted territory for me. I actually bought Californication and Blood Sugar Sex Magik at the same time and I recall really being struck by how different they sounded from each other. Blood Sugar Sex Magik sounded like it was from a another era, and considering the band was artistically dormant for most of the ’90s, that shouldn’t have really come as a surprise. In fact, it’s interesting to point out that Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers all flamed out shortly after creating a cultural zeitgeist in 1991.
Nirvana’s end was the most dramatic and abrupt of the three, and Dave Grohl only managed to carry on through rebirth. Pearl Jam’s war with Ticketmaster was a bit of a dim crusade, although I certainly can appreciate them sticking to their guns. They haven’t been the “it” band since. As for RHCP, guitarist John Frusciante left the group shortly after the alternative rock explosion, and they have never recovered artistically. They have made good records since, obviously — I have enjoyed all of their work since Frusciante came back into the fold to make Californication. (Incidentally, he left the band again after 2006‘s Stadium Arcadium, and their recent album I’m with You (2011) isn’t nearly as good as a result.) But alas, that intangible energy is absent.
And frankly, that same energy has long since disappeared from Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters, the only other surviving remnants of the bands who once appealed to Gen-Xers in the early ’90s, as well. All of them managed to reinvent themselves for the Millennial generation — Dave Grohl more drastically so, obviously — in the second half of the ’90s, and while there’s nothing disingenuous about that, there’s a reason why no matter how good their new material is, it will never be as good as their output from when they were able to click with their own generation. Even if their newer work is technically better, it just won’t have the same resonance. The most fascinating thing about that to me though is that when it comes to which part of an artist’s body of work I usually gravitate towards the most, it’s almost always the era that appeals to the artist’s generation instead of my own. The energy and the vibe is just different. Like I said before, it’s intangible. There’s nothing that an artist can do to control it; it’s really more about the power of youth.
In the case of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, like Nevermind and Ten, absolutely explodes with energy. And unlike its grunge counterparts from Seattle, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is Los Angeles funk metal, sprawling messily over what used to be a double album’s length. Of course, in 2006 they released a rare modern-day double album, the 122-minute Stadium Arcadium, spread out across two CDs or, if you wanted to avoid the poor mastering the Chili Peppers’ CDs are notorious for, a ridiculous four vinyl records. And while I found a lot to enjoy on Stadium Arcadium (there are 28 songs, after all), I’ve never been able to enjoy it as an album. It’s too long, and since it lacks any kind of narrative cohesion, it just comes across as clunky and unwieldy. Frankly, the material would have been better served a much shorter super album.