The word "mature" keeps cropping up in positive reviews of this disc mature songwriting, mature arrangements, mature subject matter, mature performances and such references are apt. Unfortunately, maturity isn't the most scintillating quality: It doesn't quicken the pulse or trigger the endorphins, and can easily slide into less laudable characteristics, like cautiousness and tedium. So while By the Way is unquestionably the Peppers' most mature recording to date, it's also their dullest a highly listenable, unquestionably professional piece of product that should tickle people who keep up to date with current sounds by watching episodes of VH1's Behind the Music, but will leave many others wondering if the Peppers' cocks can still hold up their socks.
The roots of this particular development can be traced to 1991's "Under the Bridge," in which Pepper front man Anthony Kiedis warbled unsteadily about his love for Los Angeles ("She sees my good detail/And she kisses me windy") and his obsession with hypodermics ("Under the bridge downtown/Is where I drew some blood") over the least funky track the group had ever released. Had it tanked, the song might have been regarded as a tangent the Peppers wisely chose not to follow. But its breakthrough success convinced the players to downplay their frenetic party-boy vibe in favor of a search for pop-rock profundity. On both 1995's One Hot Minute (which is about what the disc provided) and 1999's semi-turgid Californication, the freaky rap-rock stylings for which the band was first known were outnumbered by mid-tempo, radio-friendly ditties severely lacking in monster grooves.
On By the Way, this process reaches its logical conclusion. The title cut contains some of bassist Flea's trademark thumping, as well as a decent guitar figure offered up by the suddenly sane John Frusciante. But each time these elements seem to be building up some momentum, they're cut off in favor of Kiedis' el-sensitivo crooning. This blend is repeated on "Can't Stop," with similarly middling results: A Gang of Four-inspired verse is mated with a chorus that's like something out of Seals and Crofts. Other offerings, including "Universally Speaking," are overtly Beatles-esque, but, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Kiedis is no John Lennon or Paul McCartney; hell, he's not even Ringo. In an apparent attempt to compensate for Kiedis' shortcomings in the pipes department, producer Rick Rubin layers on plenty of sweet background harmonies, but the results remain tepid. "Don't Forget Me" and "Midnight" are failed power ballads that wouldn't sound out of place on a Boston LP, and "I Could Die for You" is so drippy that it may short-circuit your CD player. Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
A few tunes, such as "Throw Away Your Television," hint at the ballsiness of old, but the couplet "It's a repeat/And it's getting old" strikes a little too close to home. It's not that the Peppers are endlessly repeating themselves on the disc: Ill-advised though it might be, the faux-ska of "On Mercury" at least represents something fairly new. But the entire project feels watered-down and edge-free two descriptors that never would have been applied to this band back in the day. As By the Way proves, maturity can be overrated.