But six years ago John Frusciante was missing in action--not so much missing, actually, as lost, holed up in the Château Marmont on Sunset Boulevard with a guitar in one hand and a syringe in the other (actually, a syringe in the arm, leg, wherever he could tap a vein). He'd been run out of a rental home in the Hollywood Hills and exiled into where-are-they-now status, which was fine with him; he'd vanished happily and willfully into the junkyard, recording into this shit jambox all these weirdo sketches of songs that sounded like tidal waves of brilliant white noise and other demonic errata no one would ever hear or get if one did. In 1996, it seemed Frusciante had succumbed to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' smack-addict plague; years ago, you joined this band at your own risk and left on occasion around the time you kicked the habit the hardest way possible.
Cut, as they say in L.A., to 2002: Frusciante's reborn, with a mouth full of new teeth and a head full of new songs better, in total, than any to ever grace a Peppers record. (Those who'd insist BloodSugarWhatever is the masterpiece listen too hard to "Under the Bridge," which is actually just hard to listen to.) Word is Frusciante's responsible for most of the music here, though all get equal credit, and it makes a certain sense; once the demons left his skull, or maybe just cut him slack, what was left was the sound of celebration, redemption and resurrection. By the Way chimes like no other Peppers album; it rings and sings, resonates and detonates, catches a wave and rides it out beyond the sunset into a new day's rising. This is the band's Pet Sounds, only without the poor-me parts; more to the point, it's the Peppers' Smile with bright, shiny teeth. God knows what the hell Anthony Kiedis is on about (fine...AIDS, junkies, peace in the San Fernando Valley, goddamned gang-bangers--all the usual stuff, only more so), but only because it's hard to care. Frusciante, Flea (Bootsy Mingus in a city of angels, or studio pros, with clipped wings) and drummer Chad Smith are less band than bond; the third or fourth listen in, you might notice there's some dude singing, or whatever it is he does, but by then you won't mind.