Enter the bizarre saga that is John Frusciante’s solo career…
Story goes, he left the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992 and lost his mind. The years of excess, copious touring, and constant hissy fits with Anthony Kiedis had finally taken their toll on the guitarist, who isolated himself in the recesses of Los Angeles with a stockpile of heroin and a cheap Portastudio. Two years later, he released these psychotic episodes as his solo debut, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt — the first in an ongoing series of solo albums that are very un-Chili Peppers.
He’s a songwriter who welcomes chaos, as if in artistic defiance of the rigid, commercialized song structures of his former band. There’s always that initial shock when you listen to him for the first time: “This is the dude who helped write ‘Can’t Stop’?” Consider it a testament to how talented he is, able to follow the rules of the Top 40 and then release an album of lo-fi folk. There was always the sense that he was creatively stifled with RHCP, so it’s only natural that he carve out an outlet to explore.
However, Frusciante’s taken that exploration to a polarizing extreme lately, dabbling in hardcore electronic music. 2012’s PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone and last year’s Outsides EP saw him inserting drum and bass and trip-hop into his songs, much to the chagrin of those expecting fancy guitar work or the dense calmness of the acclaimed 2005 LP Curtains. The detractors did have a point: While Frusciante is a gifted guitar player, his electronic production was jarringly amateurish by comparison. Hearing him trigger drum spasms over otherwise typical songs was both indulgent and unnecessary, as if he was consciously sabotaging his recordings (under the guise of polyrhythmic atonality).
This experiment continues on Enclosure, and Frusciante doesn’t yield, throwing in even more breakbeats and rattling electro percussion. The template is established with opener “Shining Desert”, Frusciante’s falsetto and fuzzy guitar drenched in reverb as a cacophony of drum and bass flows on and offbeat. He sings in 4/4 time while all the snares go wild, and this recurs on the following track, “Sleep”.
So, the patented Frusciante chaos is firmly intact, but at what cost? Just like PBX, the songs are disengaging because the engaging elements — the vocals and the guitars — play second and third fiddle to Frusciante’s electronics, which are far and away the weakest parts of the songs. The drum onslaughts obscure words and melodies. Even worse are the guitar solos themselves, which, like the vocals, are out of time and seemingly recorded independently of the percussion. Tracks like “Cinch” and the coda of “Strange” wander lost in the schismatic void between random noodling and Ratatat-esque dance rock. Unless you’re really into atonality or rudimentary drum and bass, it’s difficult to absorb.
The understated moments on Enclosure stand out among the convolution. It’s when Frusciante holds back on the buttons and knobs and just sings to a simple rhythm that he gets through. “Fanfare” is the emotional highpoint of the record, and it’s a simple synthpop tune with a Bowie croon up front in the mix. The first half of “Stage” — a sinister post-punk crawl — also hints at how a more subdued approach would have benefited a lot of these songs, which begin to blur in a muddle of repetitive beats and occasional guitar.
Even for an amorphous songwriter like Frusciante, Enclosure is a stretch. The overly complicated percussion is an impractical fit for his songwriting style and offers little for the listener to cling to. He’s said this record is his “last word on the musical statement that began with PBX.” So be it. His talents are best applied elsewhere, far away from the breakbeats.
Essential Track: “Fanfare”