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John Frusciante - To Record Only Water for Ten Days Music Album Reviews

John Frusciante - To Record Only Water for Ten Days Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore the haunting and beautiful 2001 solo album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante.

Before John Frusciante could afford to get high, he had to just read about it. Born in Queens, New York, to musician parents and raised in California by his mother, the guitar prodigy spent his childhood poring through books about rock stars, particularly David Bowie. Often, he went straight to the index to find the parts about cocaine. “I just thought David Bowie did his coolest stuff when he was on a lot of coke,” Frusciante explains during a haunting 1994 interview, in which he appears gaunt and ghostlike and strung out on heroin. “That feeling and that image is the whole reason I got into rock’n’roll in the first place,” explains the 24-year-old, who looks so much older.

Frusciante let this interviewer into his home to discuss Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt, his stark, impressionistic solo debut after quitting the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the height of their success. His departure seemed inevitable. He was a kid—only 18—when he was asked to join his then-favorite band, and his interests were expanding. He was learning about art. Maybe he wanted to be a painter. Hard drugs were becoming a dominant part of his life. All of this, he felt, was starting to clash with the world-famous funk-rock group he believed was becoming increasingly commercial and ridiculous. The incongruence seemed clearest when he was forced to do press alongside all-id frontman Anthony Kiedis. “If I say ‘Van Gogh, blah blah blah,’ and he says, ‘Whip out your cock and show it to my mother,’” Frusciante elaborates, “You know, it doesn’t go together.”

The discrepancy between Frusciante and the sex-crazed rock band that launched him to fame can sometimes be overstated. In most respects, he fit in well and he shaped the sound of their most iconic period. His primary influences—art rock, post-punk, prog, electronic—are defiantly at odds with the radio-friendly alternative sound RHCP built their name on. But his contributions to the band are inextricable from their very core. Anyone with a vague familiarity with the band at its peak will recognize his voice—the background “awws” and “whoas” that sound like a man attempting to approximate a foghorn, the moan that sounds like a lonely pedal steel filtered through a wah pedal.

Frusciante zeroed in on the Chili Peppers’ sadness, the void perpetuating their desperate fun. With his background vocals and deeply emotive guitar playing, he could expose these moods so that, for a certain listener, it was all you could hear. He had that same quality that let Johnny Marr elevate Morrissey’s totems of self-deprecation into something empathetic and eternal; the same skill that allows Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to find the dissonance in each other’s pastoral lullabies. He heard something in his bandmates’ playing and he knew how to amplify it. Frusciante’s most distinctive contributions—say, the riff in “Under the Bridge,” or his vocal harmonies during the second half of “Otherside”—suggest the work of a born accompanist, a voice best suited as part of a whole.

As much seemed true when he quit the band. You can hear flirtations with brilliance on his two solo records from the ’90s: Niandra Lades and 1997’s Smile From the Streets You Hold, a collage of lo-fi recordings dating back to his teenage years. At the time, he claimed he was making this music to balance out a lack of “real art” on the market (like Da Vinci, or Jimi Hendrix, or Jane’s Addiction, he explained). Years later, he would change his story, claiming he released them solely to fuel an out-of-control drug habit.

Some songs on these records do in fact feel clear-headed, even inspired, and they point a clear path toward the work to come. Yet the overwhelming atmosphere is decay. Listen casually and you will hear a voice straining and choking, melodies fumbling, ideas stretched out way too long or abandoned almost immediately. Listen closely and you will hear even harsher sounds—a body falling apart, wallpaper peeling, light dwindling.

While Frusciante will always be known as a guitar virtuoso, his best playing feels like a voice speaking to you one-on-one. If you were an adolescent who picked up a guitar around the end of the ’90s, his songs may have been the ones you learned to play. On his comeback record with the Chili Peppers, 1999’s blockbuster Californication, he found resonance in simple chord progressions and minimalist, almost fragile soloing on the highest strings—things you could try to replicate after a few hours of practice.

In 1998, when he was brought back to life by the doctors at Las Encinas Recovery Center, with a new set of teeth to replace the ones that rotted away from drug abuse and with skin implants over his abcessed arms, Frusciante approached this simple style as a guiding philosophy. “I’m not into being a guitar hero,” he said in 2001. “I like guitar players who are more clumsy and more awkward... and who are trying really hard.”

To Record Only Water for Ten Days is the first album Frusciante made after recovering from drug addiction, getting clean, and rejoining the Chili Peppers. The title of the 2001 record refers to a form of self-purification he envisioned, involving the body as a tape recorder that documents only what’s absolutely necessary. Its sound, distinguished by gauzy keyboards and the sharp plinks of a vintage drum machine, was inspired by electronic music, a growing interest he treated like a secret affair in order to stay focused on his day job with the band. “Because if I listened to electronic music and then I went to rehearsal,” he said, “Everything sounded so boring to me.” In these songs, you hear him find joy in recreating the claustrophobic atmosphere of his ’90s solo albums in a way that felt more controlled, more sustainable.

Even at their most polished, Frusciante’s solo records elicit a feeling of eavesdropping—hearing music that itself seems to be just on the verge of existence. It’s a quality they share with certain posthumous collections: I think of Elliott Smith’s New Moon or any other set whose appeal lies in the intimacy, the occasionally unsettling familiarity of its presentation. Are we supposed to be hearing this? Do they know we’re listening? He rarely performs live, so Frusciante’s legacy outside the band lives within these records—stories you can return to over and over again without cracking their code.

Like Harmony Korine’s 2007 film Mr. Lonely, another return from a nearly fatal addiction, To Record Only Water concerns itself with weighty topics but expresses them through seemingly disconnected visions so even the most blunt confessions feel as distant as a mostly-forgotten nightmare. “All paths divide,” he sings in “Invisible Movement.” “Life has a way of opening up.” Much of his writing proceeds in this way, somewhere between warnings, words of advice, and riddles. Explaining his lyrics, Frusciante claimed to write mostly from the perspective of the afterlife: “After you die, you’ll be hearing people saying stuff like the stuff I say on my record.” For now, we’ll have to take his word for it.

More than his lyrics, Frusciante’s songs find coherence in his performance. The ones collected here are among his most gripping. His low, slurring voice sometimes sounds like Cat Stevens and sometimes sounds like Michael Stipe, and, although imperfect, it’s an instrument he wields with confidence. The record begins with a scream. In “Going Inside,” he filters a primal cry to make it sound indistinguishable from his silvery guitar tone, blurring the line between his modes of communication. It introduces a record where nothing is what it seems. Familiar alt-rock conventions are compressed into a burbling rhythm cycle in “Away & Anywhere,” and softer moments like “Wind Up Space” feel bruised and off-kilter, like a discarded verse from an old pop standard looping on a locked groove.

“The First Season” stands among his finest achievements. The song’s first half, a jangling psych-folk ballad like something from Neil Young’s debut, spans less than two minutes before funneling into a persistent, climbing finale. “Be humble, take it the slow way,” he reminds himself. And when his voice breaks as he shouts “I keep holding on to myself,” you hear what he might have been attempting on those harrowed old home recordings: a document of survival that highlights the struggle over the outcome. Now he had gained the ability to reflect on it with hindsight. He sings like he’s rescuing the song from a dangerous place.

Where even the most concise Chili Peppers songs seem sanded down from jam sessions, Frusciante’s new work felt refined and disciplined, like it could be performed by nobody else in no other way. Some songs are genuinely carefree and fun (his new wave experiments like “Someone’s” and “Moments Have You”) and others are salvaged from his darkest years (“Saturation”). But the mood remains consistent, a dream of life that keeps regenerating from itself.

It’s a highlight in his catalog, but To Record Only Water is not his peak. Soon, he would sharpen his production (2004’s Shadows Collide With People), his songwriting (2005’s Curtains), and his vision (2009’s The Empyrean). He worked tirelessly, as if making up for lost time. A 2005 music video for a song called “The Past Recedes” offers the inverse experience of that troubling 1994 interview. He appears genuinely happy in a gorgeous home filled with natural light, massive CD shelves, and acoustic guitars. He calls up a friend. He hangs by the pool. He carries himself like someone who’s figured out how to be alone. Soon, after one more massive album and tour cycle, he’d quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers for good and follow his muse, away from the public eye, deeper into his own world.

John Frusciante’s career sometimes seems like a long life in rock’n’roll enacted in fast-forward. If he was drawn to make music through the paranoid mania of Bowie in the ’70s, he also got to experience all those less glamorous years—the genre exercises, the unlikely collaborators, the short-lived supergroup, the eras of wild prolificacy and those of disquieting silence. There’s a consistency to his music that can cast nearly any of his albums as your favorite. They all speak to a larger portrait, one that you can see best when you admire from a distance.

In 2015, Frusciante had to make something clear. “Obviously,” he wrote in a blog post, “I have a public audience. I am aware of them, and they know who they are.” The statement arrived in response to a recent article that quoted him denying he had a fan base anymore, a claim that understandably offended his devoted following. What he meant to say, he explained, was that he now makes music with no audience in mind. That is, he satisfies himself, caters to no one, works for the simple joy of bringing ideas to life. “Thinking this way,” he wrote, “Gives me a certain freedom and stimulates growth and change.” He signed off, “Thank you all for existing.”

Despite the irony in an artist breaking his hermitude simply to affirm to his fanbase that he knows they exist, his words ring true. Working mostly without major label backing and remaining too prolific for any one record to crossover, Frusciante established a path comparable to cult-level indie figures like Simon Joyner or Jason Molina more than the rockstars and festival headliners he came up with. It might be the modern version of the withdrawn artistic existence he once dreamed about. And if his evolution resembles a ghost story, it’s one at least with a happy ending. The introduction to his second life, To Record Only Water offers a humble kind of inspiration: Start again, get stronger, and disappear on your own terms. It’s what I learned from listening to Frusciante’s records, and what he learned by living through them.

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