Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Untitled a.k.a. ZoSo a.k.a. Symbols a.k.a. Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

A lot has been made of Led Zeppelin's fourth album. And it's true that the connection you have with a piece or collection of music - the period of your life when you discover it, and what it means to you - can affect your opinion of it, in the same way that nostalgia works. Of course, I'd like to think that good music is more likely to make an impression on people in the first place, but who can be sure (certainly, even the question of what music is good is a subjective one)?

Nevertheless, when I listen to Zep's fourth album even now, it seems clear to me. The band has reached a pinnacle on this record. Whatever combination of performance (which Zep had been acing since the start), songwriting (which was probably improving since their earliest days), and production (the curious and uninitiated will want to research "Headley Grange") was involved, the band sounds mature and in the zone on this record. They recorded fantastic music before this album, and they would record lots more afterward, but something about this one stands out. The parts are incredible, and yet together they manage to create something even greater on the whole.

Everybody says this is Zep's best album, and I've been mostly inclined to agree over the years, even though there have been times when, like saying The Beatles are the greatest band of all time (actually I'm not a big Beatles fan), or Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time (I am a big Hendrix fan, although I have to admit it took some time for him to grow on me), you wonder if the answer is so obvious that you might be ignoring some better, less-recognized alternatives. But right now, today, looking back on Zep's recorded catalog, I can say with confidence that this is the band's best record. It might not be your personal favorite, or the one you necessarily enjoy listening to the most, but I think it's the best record of who Led Zeppelin was, and why they've made such a huge impression on the landscape of rock music.

The album opens with a bang, with a sublime piece of rock that's kind of like the short rockers of past albums, but a little bit longer and more involved. It has a compelling structure that emulates the call and response style of old holler blues and its later, band-ier derivatives, that I seem to recall Jimmy once crediting the inspiration for to Peter Green's Oh Well. Much as I like that song (being a huge Peter Green fan and all) - and the atmospheric second half is unrivaled anywhere outside of traditional oriental instrumentals - Black Dog is more polished, and just rocks harder. Robert Plant's voice is at his peak, and in this song it trades space with the rest of the band, Jimmy's guitar at the forefront with a cascade of rock riffage that doesn't let up until the fadeout. The message here is clear: the gods of rock are in top form and they'd like to borrow your ear for the next forty minutes.

Black Dog's immediate followup - Rock and Roll (incidentally also partially inspired by Peter Green's band Fleetwood Mac - namely the drum intro Mick Fleetwood played on live versions of Little Richard's Keep-A-Knockin') is closer to the "short rocker" format, and has a rollicking good riff (try learning it some time!) that keeps the song moving. Bonham is, appropriately, in top form here, but the guitar also leaps off the record, and you might just find yourself echoing Plant's chorus, "been a long time, been a long time, been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time"! It's really great to listen to music that's not only well composed, performed, and produced, but that also sounds like the band is having a lot of fun playing it.

On track three, the band takes their first breath, and introduces a folk tune featuring mandolin playing and Sandy Denny (who sang with Fairport Convention) performing guest supporting vocals. But the really amazing thing about The Battle of Evermore is how good it sounds, not being a rock song and all. Certainly, the fantasy-themed lyrics (that make liberal references to The Lord of the Rings) help to create the atmosphere, but somehow the sound of the whole thing sounds authentically mystical. Maybe it's part of the magic of this album, that everything on it is laced with gold, but this is one of the most intriguing of the softer songs in Zep's catalog, and quite possibly the best mandolin-based song I know of.

How does one analyze a song like Stairway To Heaven? You want to say that the song's hype contributes to its popularity, but would it have so much hype if it wasn't popular to begin with? And the fact remains that, something like thirty years after the song was written, recorded, and released, and with minimal if any knowledge of its legacy, it captivated me, too, to the point of obsession. I'm sure the title helps - that in conjuring the image of Heaven, and the idea of building a stairway to it, not only people's attention, but also their investment in the song is heightened. But if the song weren't good enough to back up people's expectations, that's all it would be. On the contrary, this is a fantastic piece of music. It manages to be both soft and pretty at the start, and lively and heavy at the end, and perhaps the most intriguing part of all is how it gradually builds up the tension over the course of the song, like a good story arc in the form of musical perfection. And must I even mention the guitar solo? I don't know what it is, exactly, but I suspect it has something to do with the anticipation, where the melody finishes up, and you know the solo is coming, but it takes an extra bar or two to get there. And you feel the anticipation, and you know it's coming, but where is it? You wait, and it's coming, and the drums kick in and you know it's going to be there and then, bam! it's there, and it feels so good. Look, I'm not trying to be cute when I say this, and I'm not the first one to have said it, but it's true. This song is sex in rock form. And it's totally appropriate that a sexy band like Led Zeppelin should be the ones to create it. There are many songs I'd be gleefully willing to consider as "the best song of all time", but there's always that doubt - what about this one, or that one? But...if you were to walk up to me and say, "Stairway To Heaven is the best song of all time", I would not argue with you.

It's hard to follow Stairway To Heaven, but this album's not finished yet. Misty Mountain Hop gets maybe a little less air play than most of the other tracks on this album (certainly the rocking ones), but it's got every bit of the energy and feel good tone of, say, Rock and Roll. Plus, for once, it's driven by a really cool keyboard riff. This is another really fun song to sing along with, and the way that Plant's vocalizations cap the verses and fill out the choruses is positively thrilling!

Four Sticks has the dubious distinction of being probably the most (only?) forgettable song on this album - but consider the album we're talking about. Actually, it's not a bad piece of music, and it certainly mops the floor with the duds on Zep's third album, for example, but it doesn't often get much credit. To be truthful, it is a rather repetitive song, and it drones a bit, but it's got a riff with lots of momentum. And Plant is still in great form, as he is all over this record. But when your neighbors are songs like Black Dog, Stairway To Heaven, and When The Levee Breaks, well, you can be forgiven for not taking home a ribbon.

For the second time on this album (unless we're including the gentle opening to Stairway To Heaven), the band lightens up, this time for a genuine acoustic ballad, wherein Robert Plant sings a barely-concealed ode to Joni Mitchell. I've said before that I don't often go for straight-up acoustic songs, but Going To California is so pretty, and it's one of the exceptions that I like a lot. There is a definite element of longing in the song, and Plant's echo effect on one section gives it a little extra magic. I'll never forget playing the melody to this song over and over in my head as I sat in a commercial jet for the first time in my life, as it began to lift off, beginning its journey to San Francisco where my relocated girlfriend awaited me...

You just know, an album like Zep IV is going to go out on a strong note. And indeed it does. When The Levee Breaks is a lovely piece, because it's heavy and it's rocking, and its another demonstration of the band's ability to breathe new life into old blues songs (think Zep II's Bring It On Home, but turned up to 11). Levee is an old folk blues dating back to the 1920s, written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but what Zep's done to it here renders it nearly unrecognizable - in the best possible way. The lyrics are also updated to include what I interpret to be an homage to the great exodus of blues players (lead by the great Muddy Waters) from the Mississippi delta north to the slums of Chicago, giving rise to the great modern tradition of electric blues music. I have been told that Bonzo's drum beat on this song - which is very beefy - has been sampled endlessly, and Plant plays like a virtuoso on the harmonica (not his first demonstration of that talent, but probably his most captivating). The song has an almost hypnotizing quality, and Plant's warnings about the impending disaster ("when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move") keep you on edge. Altogether, it's another fantastic piece of music, and a fitting close to what is, in my opinion, quite plausibly the greatest rock album ever recorded.

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