I promised that this week’s entry wouldn’t be a debut record. As I looked into the mid-to-late 1980s section of my spreadsheet for what to pick, a whole slew of not-debuts stood out.
Let’s go with one of the most famous options.
What is it?
Now and Zen is the 1988 entry in Robert Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin discography. It’s ten songs long and probably counts as his biggest commercial success. Music videos, remix singles, this album got the full razzle-dazzle promotional push.
How does it sound?
Lighten up, baby, it’s a sampler mix:
Why this pick?
This one’s interesting because of the gusto with which Plant threw himself into the notion of “selling out.” To put that into context: On the previous few records, he’d gone out of his way not to reference the famous old band like folks generally expected of him. He wanted his own career on his own merits. One certainly can’t blame him. There are few four-piece musical acts more revered in Western rock music than the mighty Zeppelin, and the same pressure to make albums which didn’t sound like “the old stuff” seems to apply here as it did to the former Fab Four. So he noodled around and experimented and got a feel for what works. He sold records, had a few singles on the radio, and his career seemed to be puttering along well enough.
Then Plant went into the studio in the mid-80s with a new songwriting collaborator, a whole different backing band, and a grab-bag of sampled Zep riffs and out came a chart-topping radio-friendly monster record. The whole thing is almost a re-balancing. After a half-dozen or so years of mostly avoiding the legacy of the band that made him a household name, here he is releasing a hit single that literally samples some of the most recognizable moments from that band. It should’ve been cheap and shameful and forgettable, right? And yet. And yet.
So, yes, “Tall Cool One” sold a lot of records, but there’s much more to this album than convincing Jimmy Page play some guitar licks here and there. It’s as if in the process of saying “to hell with it” and getting those hit singles and winking Zep references out of his system, Robert Plant found some renewed energy and inspiration. His solo records have always had interestingly moody pieces, but they’re more bright and lively here, more tightly constructed. Perhaps he had to surround himself with the right people in addition to getting some of those hangups out of his system. Whatever the cause, this album works.
Which songs are the highlights?
As one expects from an album crafted to sell big numbers, the hit-quality stuff is front-loaded. “Heaven Knows,” “Dance On My Own,” and “Tall Cool One” is an opening trio for the ages. Follow that with the slower-paced but utterly gorgeous “The Way I Feel” and man, you’re hard pressed to find a better first side of a record in Plant’s entire career.
Yes, albums still had “sides” back then, since vinyl and cassettes were still relatively popular media. CDs hadn’t entirely taken over.
Later one gets the somber “Ship of Fools,” one of his all-time most gorgeous songs. Toward (or at, if you had the original cassette or vinyl) the end you get the amusing piece, “White, Clean and Neat” in which Robert Plant engages his inner 50s-pop-stars fanboy.
Which songs don’t work so well?
Robert Plant seems to have not-so-secretly always longed to be a pop star in the Elvis Presley mold, and his rockabilly tendencies show up here in “Billy’s Revenge.” The doo-wop side of Plant’s career still leaves me cold, so does this song. “Why” is kind of by-the-numbers; it’s not bad, it’s just not all that great either. The “bonus” track which now closes most releases of the album is “Walking Towards Paradise.” You could press the Stop button after “White, Clean and Neat” and be just fine, honestly.
Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?
Had it not been Now and Zen, I’d probably have gone with the one after: Manic Nirvana, a title which caused some confusion when I was looking for it in record stores around the time of its release because the store clerks would keep pointing me toward some Seattle-based act I’d never heard of instead of the Robert Plant album I actually wanted. It’s not as good an album overall but it’s almost more interesting due to some of the experimental directions traveled along the way. One track, “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night,” features a vinyl “hiss and pop” background layer, evoking the experience, nearly extinct already at the time, of listening to the album on a turntable. A “clean” version of the track was later included as a B-side on one of the singles.
In fact, Manic Nirvana‘s best content is at the end, despite the erstwhile radio-friendly stuff being stacked up front again.
I could’ve gone with the 1993 release, Fate of Nations, as well. It’s a very good record overall and I recommend it if you enjoy Plant’s stuff and haven’t tried it out yet. I think of it as the record where he really started embracing his elder-statesman role in a positive way.
Any final thoughts?
I did buy the special edition Digipak CD version in the long black box, so yes, I have the red satin “wolf” flag. It’s around here somewhere…