Classic Rock Review

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Robert Plant Fate Of Nations (1993)

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Something must have surely happened during the minuscule two-year period between Manic Nirvana and this album, because it’d be hard to imagine two albums more stylistically and emotionally different from one another, unless you bring Central Siberian folk motives into the picture. But it’s more than just a matter of “difference”; it’s almost a matter of “rebirth”. Fate Of Nations offers us a new, revised and restructured version of Robert Plant, one you could only see occasional brief glimpses of in the past. It’s a cleaned up, sobered up, straightened up, wisened up version of Robert Plant. If Robert Plant had been Tigger, this version of Robert Plant would have been the Domesticated Tigger of Rabbit’s dreams. Only this time Rabbit’s dreams have actually come alive.

And it’s a great version of Robert Plant. You know, ever since he became hiding behind all the gimmicks and antics of mid-period Zeppelin, as I now realize, in the heat of all the gimmick-bashing I have almost managed to forget how totally cool his singing voice was from the very beginning, and how it never really lost any of its power since the day it first became known to soon-to-be Zep fans. Behind the “baby babies”, and all the strutting, and all the posturing, and all the meaningless, but pompous lyrics, I’ve missed the actual guy. And this is where I get the actual guy – disarmed and almost frighteningly sincere, first time since… well, ever, I guess!

Yep, this is an old man’s album. Another old man’s album out of a miriad. It doesn’t rock too hard and it sure doesn’t experiment. And it radically and utterly and completely steps away from any trends there might have been in the past two decades; indeed, many of the songs seriously attempt to recreate the classic Zeppelin sound of old instead, and some actually succeed, thus paving the way for Plant’s reunion with Page in the next few years. It’s also rather long and I couldn’t call all of its melodies instantly memorable. But it touched something deep within me upon the very first listen, and now, completing my fourth, I feel ready to make the final conclusion: Fate Of Nations can honestly rank up there with some of Led Zeppelin’s best work, and there’s no shame in believing that.

It is quite different, though. Like I said – no strutting (‘Promised Land’ has some, but it’s just a cute little exception that only proves the rule). Those with little tolerance towards non-aggressive, easy-going (by all means not to be confused with “easy listening”!) rootsy pop will hardly understand how anything on here can be discussed on equal terms with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Stairway To Heaven’. No, this is quiet stuff, and certainly nowhere near groundbreaking. But it’s amazingly consistent – not one tune on here that hasn’t got some interesting point to prove – and there’s about as much sincere passion and humanism here as there is swagger and youthful arrogance on Zep’s ’68-’71 albums.

No Led Zeppelin song, let alone a Robert Plant solo song, has ever made me cry (although ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Crawl’ came pretty close at times). All the more amazing is how ‘I Believe’, a tune you might know since it was a single and got some good airplay in its time, manages to hold me in Robert’s own shoes for four minutes, making me care about his long-lost son almost as if it were my own offspring. As much as I like Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’, I’m afraid Robbie wins here, with one of the saddest and at the same time most uplifting odes to a dead person ever written. The lyrics are never obtrusive – it’s not even that easy to tell who the song is addressed to without a very scrupulous analysis – and Plant’s vocal delivery is absolutely breathtaking; I get goosebumps every time the ‘neighbour, neighbour, don’t be so cold’ line rings out loud and clear. Throw in some great vocal harmonies; fresh, lively guitar jangle and a Byrds-ey guitar solo; and a moderate synthesizer backdrop that happens to actually add depth rather than reinstate banality. Gorgeous.

It’s clearly the best song, but it’s only one song, after all – what if he let us down with the rest of this material? He doesn’t. Even the more ‘fillerish’ tracks, like the unexpected cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ (the early precursor to Dreamland), is graciously sung and arranged, with exquisite orchestration, pretty acoustic guitar, and a weird sitar track as a bonus. The already mentioned ‘Promised Land’ doesn’t quite fit in with the mood, but it’s a hoot, almost a benevolent parody on classic Led Zeppelin: its main groove and arrangement tricks including echoey harmonica make me think of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, among other things. But even then Plant is nowhere near obnoxious, delivering the moderately smutty lyrics in a weird, hoarse manner.

As for the carefully thought out material, much of it is absolutely first-rate. ‘Calling To You’ once again tries to capture the ‘Kashmir’ vibe, but this time with memorable riffs and really interesting mood shifts between verse and chorus. ‘Down To The Sea’ is upbeat and toe-tappable but essentially folksy, combining a taste for the archaic with a love for all things catchy and radio-ready. ‘Come Into My Life’ is Plant at his pleading best, conveying desperation and longing by actually singing the lines rather than adlibbing moot stuff. (I seem to remember Maire Brennan of Clannad credited for backing vocals here – or was it on a different song from the same album? in any case, there’s plenty of traditional Celtic elements as well as Enya-style-ified treatings of the same on here, and it’s good).

The record might drag in a few spots (it IS long), but it’s nowhere near as monotonous as this review might make it seem; it’s just that since the melodies rarely “jump out” at you, at first there might be a suspicion of the album being too ‘smooth’. It isn’t, really. Apart from pseudo-adult contemporary, folkish stuff, Eastern stuff, and direct Zep imitations, there’s also some straightforward catchy guitar pop like ’29 Palms’ – a song that I first thought bland and uninteresting, but later found totally addictive because of the great guitar arrangement – and some of Plant’s obligatory pagan mysticism (‘Great Spirit’) which is sorta like heavy-metal-meets-New-Age on practice, and even a heavy rocker about the Gulf War (‘Network News’) which, once again, doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, but contains some excellent riffage and basically achieves its not-so-complex goal, namely, to kick some political ass.

In short, Fate Of Nations done me good. It gave me (so far) four hours of what I’d call “rational enjoyment” – even when the music wasn’t THAT good, it felt great listening to it just because instead of getting all the bad things you’d expected, you weren’t getting none of it; the sight of Robert Plant doing an album so decidedly “un-Robert Plant”, and doing it with confidence, devotion, and sympathy, was enough to put the juice back in the cherry, if you pardon a sleazy metaphor. And when the music was good, it made me think of Robert Plant as a sensitive human being, heck, just a real person, not a long haired stage muppet. And kudos to his backing band as well: they seem to be more or less the same as on Manic Nirvana, and yet they are able to deliver tasteful, gallant music in the “laid back” vein just as genuinely as they were able to deliver brawny rock’n’roll two years ago.

March 8, 2013 - Posted by | Robert Plant Fate Of Nations |

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