Robert Plant's Second Act

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If Scott Fitzgerald was right and American lives are bereft of second acts (and somewhere he tires of hearing that quoted), British rock stars have eagerly picked up our slack. From the cockroachish longevity of the Rolling Stones and The Who to the tireless re-makings of David Bowie and Elvis Costello to the lucrative rushes to the Starbucksian middlebrow by Elton John and Paul McCartney: if these figures haven't aged uniformly gracefully they've at least managed to not fade away, to borrow from their adopted lexicon.

Recently we've seen one of the most unexpected reinventions of all, that of former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, one of music's most recognizable voices who nonetheless spent the better part of 25 years following his band's 1980 breakup on a quixotic search for himself. In late 2007 Rounder Records released Raising Sand, a collaboration between Plant and the sumptuously talented bluegrass musician Alison Krauss. Sparkling reviews and unexpectedly robust sales finally culminated in Raising Sand being awarded Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammys, and last month Plant released his own sequel of sorts, Band of Joy, a gorgeous, 12-track collection of far-flung cover songs rendered in his newfound wheelhouse of rootsy Americana.

Band of Joy isn't just one of the better albums of 2010, it's also probably the best music Plant has made since the 1970s, a valuation that includes the Krauss collaboration, which for all its charms had a slickness that sometimes felt overly cozy. Produced by guitarist Buddy Miller, Band of Joy is weirder than its predecessor and even more enchanting, a vision of musical Americana that feels lived-in without being nostalgic, refined without being precious. Making this renaissance all the more remarkable is Plant's iconic association with Led Zeppelin, one of the most thrilling and significant bands in history and one whose relationship to American music—specifically African American music—was among the most troubling.

Led Zeppelin is probably the only great rock and roll band—and at their best they were truly, truly great—of whom it is possible to speak in almost entirely negative terms. Their music exploded the boundaries of taste: boorish, belligerent and often aggressively disinterested in subtlety or nuance. For this they were notoriously loathed by reviewers—this Rolling Stone pan of their second album is both hilarious and generally representative of critical consensus in this period—but rapturously adored by legions of fans, the vast majority of whom were white and a disproportionate number of whom were male.

The great irony of Led Zeppelin is that a band so deeply, even pathologically obsessed with African American music was perhaps more responsible than any other for refiguring post-Hendrix rock music as the seeming birthright of white men. It's a dubious achievement that wasn't entirely their own fault but one for which they shouldn't be entirely let off the hook, either. Perhaps the two most indelible Western associations with black music have been eroticism and violence, the sex informing the fear that in turn enhances the sex, and if you think the Brits have been exempt from these fantasies then Mick Jagger has a bridge he'd like to sell you. Zeppelin elaborated this to epic proportions: theirs was a vision of the blues that simultaneously mystified and coarsened the music, abstracting it to a feverish realm to swing like some phallic metronome between the phantasmagoric and the pornographic.

Strangely enough, it often worked, and Led Zeppelin's catalog contains some of the most powerful moments in rock music, moments that push the sex/violence dichotomy to such extremes that it compels us on its own terms. "Good Times Bad Times," the first track on 1969's Led Zeppelin, is maybe the most outrageously aggressive opening track on a debut album in history, two-and-a-half minutes of unmitigated, bone-rattling purpose; for all its faux-orgasmic theatrics, "Whole Lotta Love" has a lowbrow eroticism that's genuinely effective (and Zeppelin knew as well as anyone that sometimes lowbrow's the most effective kind). And "When The Levee Breaks," the closing track on their ambiguously-titled fourth album, is simply a masterpiece, one that reimagines Memphis Minnie's flood blues with a churning, unrelenting terror that reaches toward the sublime—no rock band ever made music that sounded like this, and none have since.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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