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.
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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.
Of course, they could also be numbingly stupid, boring, or worse. Live performances often bore interminable and unfunny resemblances to Spinal Tap, and particularly later in their career they were prone to fatal levels of bloated pretentiousness. And then there are the disconcerting racial issues, the fact that Zeppelin treated much of their blues-derived source material either cavalierly or with a caricaturing tendency that verged on parody. Sometimes bad Zeppelin and good Zeppelin even sit side-by-side in the same song, such as "Bring It On Home": two and a half minutes of jaw-dropping power sandwiched between and intro and outro of minstrel-ish hogwash.
Many of these more unseemly elements coalesced around Plant himself. Plant's vocal idol as a young man was Ray Charles, and certainly among young Britons he wasn't the only one. Unlike Joe Cocker or Steve Winwood, though, Plant never seemed entirely comfortable relinquishing the squarer sides of his Englishness, which clung to him like so many of Tolkein's ringwraiths he was fond of crooning about. Here was a singer who'd punctuate Robert Johnson's lyric "squeeze my lemon / till the juice runs down my leg" with an "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' 'bout?"—no, Mr. Plant; please do explain.
Led Zeppelin's blues cosmology was painfully literalist, all squeezed lemons, backdoor men and every-inch-of-my-love's, an inclination that might go a long way towards explaining some of the band's own lyrical deficiencies. "Let the music be your master / will you heed the master's call?" from "Houses of the Holy" might be the single worst lyric ever written; every line of "Stairway to Heaven" is in an endless tie for second.
Plant's best vocal performances were always ones that forced him toward understatement, and in general Led Zeppelin's quieter music is the most underrated part of its catalogue: "Tangerine," "That's The Way," and "Hey Hey What Can I Do," perhaps the best song the band ever wrote. A large part of this is due to Jimmy Page's unsurpassed talents as an acoustic guitarist, but part is also due to Plant's voice, one of the prettiest in rock when he allowed it to be.
Band of Joy finds him working entirely in this vein and its best performances, such as the rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Harm's Swift Way," are closer to the spirit of Ray Charles than anything Plant has ever sung. Nowhere is this more evident than in his carefully loving version of the gospel classic "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," a song it's nearly impossible to imagine Led Zeppelin approaching subtly (see their eleven-minute version of "In My Time of Dying" for an idea).
In this sense, what's most interesting about Robert Plant's second act isn't what it tells us about the continuing popularity of roots music, or even the state of Plant's career, but rather what it tells us about Led Zeppelin, one of the most influential and continually confounding bands in all of rock and roll. The critic Robert Christgau once referred to Led Zeppelin as "genius dumb," a funny and memorable appellation that manages to be both spot-on and not entirely fair. Led Zeppelin wasn't dumb, they just weren't quite as smart as they thought they were. By abandoning dubious fantasy and pretentious hysteria and learning to embrace his music on its own terms, Plant's doing some of the finest work of his career. Heed the master's call, indeed.