Once upon a time I met a man named Paddy who claimed (a) he was a disinherited member of the Scottish nobility, and (b) he was the former tutor to the crown prince of Bahrain. Our conversation slowly got stranger and stranger as Paddy told me about all the drugs he had taken, and I tried to act as unflappable as possible. When he got to talking about his adventures with heroin, though, I finally broke down and asked him what had possessed him to do it. With the air of someone imparting eternal wisdom, he said, “Heroin is heaven. Could you just say no to heaven?”
For a long time John Frusciante, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just couldn’t say no. He pulled himself out of his addiction, though, and has lived to tell about it. His new release, “To Record Only Water for 10 Days,” whose title’s strange beauty reflects well the whole of the album, is in part a record of awakening from his long opium dream.
It’s also simply a record of the addiction itself, as the lyrics show. How else do you make sense of lines like “All around you is to feel and watch you / They make patterns to peel the sound”? The lyrics are impenetrable and probably consciously meaningless, but the music more than makes up for it.
What makes “To Record Only Water for 10 Days” such a fascinating album is not any one isolated element but its whole sonic atmosphere. Like albums such as “Joshua Tree” or Beck’s “Mutations,” Frusciante’s project creates a powerful ambience that is strongly maintained throughout. Listening to the entire thing at one sitting is a really satisfying experience. Unlike many albums, even many good ones, “To Record Only Water for 10 Days” is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the album’s atmosphere is, but certainly one of its characteristics is a pervasive calm, the result of the songs’ stripped-down melodiousness. Frusciante, especially here, is not of the electric-guitar-as-cathedral-organ school, and this helps to make his melodies, the total focus of attention. Except for the instrumentals, there are hardly any guitar solos on this album. As for the other members of his band, they’re almost all electronic: He seems to be backed up by just a drum machine, a synthesizer and on some of the tracks, a background singer or two. This hardly makes the music seem lifeless, though; somehow it just adds to the peacefulness the whole album exudes.
But the tranquillity of “To Record Only Water for 10 Days” hardly makes it boring. For one thing, the songs are without exception quite short: The longest is just over four minutes, and most of them are in the three-minute range. They are tightly structured and linear, lack anything unnecessary, and keep your attention.
The only major disappointment is Frusciante’s voice, which is inconsistent. On some tracks he goes into and out of falsetto for no discernable reason except vocal convenience. One wishes he would actually keep on singing falsetto, because he has the rare talent of being good at it. And though his normal voice is certainly acceptable, especially when the songs themselves are so good, he often tries to go into a lower register than he’s capable of. It makes you wish for a cameo by Anthony Kiedis — if only because Frusciante sometimes sounds like an involuntary parody of him.
Still, the vocal faults are easy to forget and forgive. Even in “Away and Anywhere,” where Frusciante’s singing is far from admirable, it just works. The strength of the songwriting and the tastefully subtle production and mixing hide the flaws, or perhaps lessens their impact. But when Frusciante’s singing is at its best, there is nothing to criticize and a great deal to praise. The album’s last track, and perhaps its highlight, “Moments Have You,” is an example of this. Voice, melody and guitar are all subordinated to overall structure, and even at the surreal moment when you begin to hear a xylophone in the background, all you can do is marvel that it all fits together so well.
In “To Record Only Water for 10 Days,” Frusciante has had the courage to play down what he is best known for — enormous talent on the guitar — and instead has convincingly shown he’s also a deeply talented songwriter. It’s good to have him back.