Classic Rock Review

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Robert Plant Now And Zen (1988)

cover_56391617102010From dailyvault.com

It’s become somewhat of an unofficial tradition that each April 15th, I go postal (oops – accidental Tax Day joke) on a particular album that is considered in many circles to be a classic. Last year, Yes and Tales From Topographic Oceans was my victim – Jon Anderson still isn’t returning my calls as a result of that whopper.

I really didn’t mean for the tradition to continue this year, but when I dug out of the Pierce Archives (I’m still waiting for my refund) Now And Zen, the 1988 release from Robert Plant, the creative juices started flowing again, and, well… let’s just say that Plant was better off when he wasn’t trying to mimic Led Zeppelin.

For the first part of his solo career, Plant seemed to stay away from the bombastic rock that was the career of his former band. Songs like “Big Log,” “In The Mood” and “Little By Little” showed that Plant was an accomplished musician himself, without all the trappings of a rock star.

Why he decided to let it shred again I’ll never understand; Plant comes off like he’s trying to milk his past for all it’s worth – and Now And Zen fails because of this.

Part of the problem is Chris Blackwell’s use of synthesized drums on the two singles, “Heaven Knows” and “Tall Cool One” – haven’t people realized how hokey these things sound? Of course, the big selling point at the time was that Plant “reunited” with former Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page on these songs. Problem is, Page is so far buried in the mix that it’s hard to tell what he’s playing at all. For that matter, Page’s work on these two songs leaves a lot to be desired – he doesn’t sound as inspired as he did on the other Plant-Page side project The Honeydrippers.bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

Sticking with one of the singles, Plant’s usage of Zeppelin samples on “Tall Cool One” is supposed to be an answer to all the rap groups who had done the same thing – but in this case, their usage is embarrassing. It smacks of a lack of creativity – and the track itself is a laughable failure.

And Plant’s return to cock-rock isn’t a welcome change. Whether he’s talking about whacking the donkey in private (“Dance On My Own”) or having his inamorata’s “head, heart, arms and legs wrapped around my family pride” (from “Heaven Knows”), embarrassing is the adjective to use again. Hey, Bobby, you probably got parallel more in 1974 than I have in my lifetime – and you were in your forties when this album came out. Stop worshipping your dick, just stop it!!!

Ahem… now then. The remainder of Now And Zen features some of the weakest songwriting Plant has utilized since his solo debut Pictures At Eleven (which, from my vague recollection, wasn’t a bad album at all). “Helen Of Troy” is a late Eighties attempt to capture the fury of Zeppelin songs like “Achilles’ Last Stand,” while “White, Clean And Neat” is both a flashback to growing up in the Fifties as well as young lust. Sample lyric: “Beneath her skirt, between the clean white sheets / It’s such a long long way from the streets.” Give me a fuckin’ break. (Kirsty MacColl must have been broke when she agreed to do backup vocals on this album.)

So does anything on Now And Zen work? Yes, one track – “Ship Of Fools”. Plant’s return to a more moody, melodic form of music captures in five minutes what he had built up his prior solo career for. The song assumes no ghosts of days past, it just plows forward. If only Plant had done this for the entire album.

It’s funny – when I was younger, I used to love this album (and I still occasionally enjoy hearing “Heaven Knows,” though I’m ashamed to admit it after bodyslamming it into the concrete). And maybe in 1988, to a world still hungry for anything close to Led Zeppelin in sound, it worked. But nowadays, this is a tragic comedy of what used to be.

Now And Zen offers very little substance and only a little more flash – and is possibly the low point of Plant’s career. To achieve oneness with the universe, avoid this turkey like you would the post office on April 15th at 11:55 p.m.

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April 7, 2013 - Posted by | Robert Plant Now And Zen |

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