The Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn't have picked a better year for an attempted comeback. Way back in the '80s, the Chili Peppers' overflowing keg of metal, rap, and funk pioneered the funky-white-boy pose, at both its best and worst. After the stumble of 1995's almost-there One Hot Minute, though, they laid conspicuously low (thanks, in part, to accidents and recurring drug habits), and maybe that wasn't such a bad idea: How much longer could they have carried on the horny-shirtless-stud shtick before descending into self-parody?
Starting with its elbow-in-ribs title (which makes one think they've been spending quality time with fellow sex-pun groaners Van Halen), Californication has the whiff of desperation. And when Anthony Kiedis opens his mouth, the situation grows even more dire: ''All around the world, we could make time/Rompin' and a-stompin', 'cause I'm in my prime,'' he raps on the first track, ''Around the World.'' You're tempted to hit the stop button on your stereo then and there.
But then something startling happens. Perhaps it's the return of guitarist John Frusciante, who played such an integral role in 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For the bulk of Californication, the Peppers sound more relaxed, less grating, and, in their own way, more introspective than ever before. The soul-searching sentiments of ''Otherside,'' ''Californication'' (which appears to take digs at Courtney Love and ''celebrity skin''), and the sobriety-imbued ''This Velvet Glove'' are set to music that's lilting and freshly scrubbed.
The rockers are powerful but not obnoxious (or clotted with popping bass lines), and the whirlybird pulse of ''Parallel Universe'' also marks new turf for them. The Chili Peppers -- Kiedis, in particular -- can't refrain from sub-beat-poetry lyrics, throwaways like ''I Like Dirt,'' and the naughty finger-painting ode ''Purple Stain.'' But those tendencies are kept to a minimum. Californication is the sound of aging party animals who sense the room is emptying out and that they'd better look for another, healthier buzz.