PBX FUNICULAR INTAGLIO ZONE
PBX FUNICULAR INTAGLIO ZONE
The clues were there on Letur-Lefr. Last time around, I put forward my thoughts that that album was essentially about love – the newfound love of John’s life somehow being reflected in his new form of music. PBX takes this even further, as I’ll hopefully demonstrate later on. What I missed on Letur- Lefr were the oblique nods to RHCP – mostly hidden within the words that John didn’t write – “Funky Monk’s his name” is a nod to the returning “villain”, John, and a neat nod to his past. The rappers also “spit like an AK” which could be a rifle, or could be a Kiedis. Tellingly, these references are left oblique, not even from John directly, and we are no nearer to fully understanding whether they are tributes or dismissals. John’s relationship to his former band’s music remains oblique.
Or does it? It took me quite a lot of time and study to figure out what I think John is trying to do with PBX. In much the same way as I believe you can only enjoy Smile when you understand and appreciate the circumstances of its creation, so PBX requires similar insight to allow true appreciation. Now, of course, I have no real way of knowing John’s intentions, but there is sufficient evidence within these songs to make a series of compelling guesses.
I think PBX is, in all ways, musically and lyrically, a response and an antidote to John’s popular music. In his interview for the book “Feeding Back”, John states that his time with RHCP was a time when he was interested in exploring what would happen when he limited his creativity to popular music. He also says that he is no longer interested in working within these restrictions.
One of the most jarring things about the record, until you fully understand it, is its almost stream of consciousness style – electro drum beats that both do and don’t fit the songs, eclectic changes in tempo (though this fits in with his earlier philosophy around guitar solos, as can be seen on his YouTube tutorials), vocals floating oddly in the mix. The true genius of all of this is that it is fully intentional, and works almost as part of the album’s manifesto – to make the freest, wackiest kind of music, not shackled by perceptions of what has gone before, or how a song ought to be structured. John is throwing out the rulebook, drawing a line under his melodic, structured past, and TELLING US ABOUT IT IN THE LYRICS.
“He don’t see now you don’t see the heaps of elevation in me. No-one gave me time or rhythm – I don’t give you mine”. Who’s “he”? Is it Anthony? Or Flea? Or someone else unable to see that John is now making music on a different level. He uses the word “elevation”, which maybe suggests he does see this as an improvement - I’m not 100% convinced of this, nor would I want every album from here on in to sound like this, but at least in throwing out the rulebook, John is striving for something new, which could also be something great.
This is his musical letter to fans. It sets out his stall really clearly – he doesn’t owe anybody anything. He doesn’t have to make the sort of music we expect, just because it’s the sort of music we expect. This lyric alone is an explicit statement of where John is at right now – people are welcome to come along and listen, but they’ll basically get what they are given.
It’s a compelling message. Later, he states “in enemies hands, I don’t have to measure” – he isn’t calling his fans enemies, but those that would have him stay the same are, in a way, enemies to the new John. I guess most of us have been to RHCP gigs. There are always great crowds of fantastic people. But there are also lager swelling louts, for whom the whole experience is just an excuse to hear songs from the radio while getting drunk or doing drugs. Those are the enemies, and for the time being, in not making pop songs, but by returning to his esoteric roots, John no longer has to measure his success in their terms.
“And I’ve seen a million eyes at once, staring as one” – this must be those self-same crowds. “Sum” is another love letter to Nicole – all the love, the hero worship and adulation of those crowds, while not dismissed here, is put into perspective and eclipsed by the love of just that one special person. “You are the apple of my life. There’s no-one but you in the world that I’d choose” – clearly, he doesn’t need the million adoring eyes, he only needs two. In boiling it down to this most personal statement, John still makes it all about love. There can be no doubt that he makes no apology for the wackiness on display – the music is just for him now, and maybe for Nicole as well. And yet, he put the album out to us anyway, allowing us to find our own meanings within it. He’s not telling all his fans to go away, but he is making it clear that if we do, he will still be making the music he wants to make.
This is John as he is now, and this is the music he is going to make. “I’d never been right before I walked right out that door”, he says, and we can only assume he means the virtual door of pop music, and/or RHCP. “I need a taste, I can almost face myself” is a stark reminder that this is a man who has been through much emotional turmoil – as they say, once an addict, always an addict, and I hope for John’s sake he doesn’t taste too much. But ultimately John knows that it’s our mistakes that “help us see that we make our own surroundings”.
This is the album that puts to bed John’s career as a popular musician, for now, but in so doing it does indeed elevate him to a full artist. You might well hate it, you might find it difficult to understand, but I urge you to listen again with your mind blown as far open as can be. There are some gorgeous melodic hooks in here, some expressions of musical language that will resonate deeply with anyone who spent the 1980s and 1990s playing video games (some of the synth work is VERY Nintendo and Sega, and it’s AWESOME!), and, within the lyrics and the music, hidden in plain sight, John draws a line under what’s gone before, makes no apology about what is coming now and leaves the future wide open and full of possibilities.
What we least expect may, indeed, be coming next.