Perhaps I’m a mite too early in my come-to-Jesus moment (and hey, I mean, Robert Plant has the Messiah hair) with this band, but this is Led Zeppelin we’re talkenabout so I might as well go bold: this is the complete and definitive experience you can have with this group. And yes, part of that is because the last four songs are nothing special. You thought U2 played a great first half, only to give the game up as they went down the stretch? Well, I mean, you’d be right. When it’s a tie game with three seconds on the clock, you want to keep the ball out of “Elvis Presley and America’s” hands. But side four of this album gets in the way of the quest to receive a five-star rating from this internet rando. And I mean isn’t that every band’s goal when they start making music to begin with?
Well ok, maybe it isn’t, but let’s hold side four under the microscope. “Night Flight,” with its bright organ and swinging beat playing against gritty churning guitars, is pretty darn good. The other songs? Not so much. “The Wanton Song” and “Sick Again” are the latest versions of the basic Zep tune, but without the same spark. You know the former will double down on chunky bludgeoning riffs which you’ve heard better on their other songs, and you know Page will do some slide guitar stuff on the latter, but you’ve also heard Page hit the peak of his slide powers on “In My Time of Dying” (more on that later). These two uninteresting Zep rock songs bookend a couple uninteresting Zep genre experiments. “Boogie with Stu” suffers from a stiff beat, and the aforementioned Stu (ex-Stone Ian Stewart) doesn’t sound that special. “Black Country Woman” has the acoustic touches that I loved from III, but can’t find anything interesting to do with them. And it’s with these four songs that an album that had built up such a huge head of steam winds to nothing.
What a letdown. Because for three sides of vinyl, Physical Graffiti is my favorite Led Zeppelin album, and an easy five-star at that. And they got there the same way they got anywhere else: by being as over-the-top as possible, while also playing as a unit brilliantly. Take “In My Time of Dying,” an economy-sized romp through the old blues tune. Page piles on inspired slide guitar riffs, Bonham hammers those drums, and if you can’t quite hear Jones back there on bass, you sure feel him. It’s the blunt majesty of Led Zeppelin as a groove band at their finest, and Plant tops it off by being the most ridiculous human alive, finding ten million different ways to pronounce “ah my JESUS!” (which eventually breaks down to “ah my JEE! I! OH!” and a slew of grunts) while also tossing out adlibs like “bye-bye!” and “feels pretty good up here.” He sounds like he has no idea how much of a goof he is, but that’s what makes him a fun frontman. He throws himself at those stupid improvs, and it works.
Ditto his throaty and slightly gross vocal on “Trampled Under Foot.” The song is dumb lyrically, beating the car metaphors to death, but it’s also funky. The drums are walloping and tricky, and they play well with the fluid bass and smoking clavinet; on the keyboard melody that bookends the solo, Jones challenges Page as the riffmeister. “Kashmir” also features a danceable beat, which leavens its orchestral majesty; the spiraling countermelody and sneaky bridge add to the tense riff. The song hides a clever streak under its bombast. It’s usually considered the best song here; I prefer “Dying” and “Ten Years Gone,” the latter of which marks perhaps the peak of Page’s guitar extravaganzas (love the solo, love the guitar tone, love the way the riffs and sections talk to each other), but “Kashmir” is still an excellent tune. While we’re talking about the album’s hits, I also want to shout out “Houses of the Holy,” a bouncy fun pop tune the likes of which we don’t often hear from these guys.
Put me down, also, as a fan of a lot of the album’s deep cuts. I was already hooked on “The Rover” when the huge rhythm slid into one of Page’s chunkiest riffs, but the way he previews the churning chorus before the tune glides into its first verse? Chef’s kiss moment. If the whole rest of the song is a mere footnote on its instrumental intro, it’s an entertaining footnote. On the other side of the coin, “Bron-Y-Aur” is perhaps the loveliest of Page’s acoustic pieces, a nice link track between “In the Light” (another big mystical sprawler a la “Kashmir” - not quite as impressive, but full of fun surprises and perhaps the proggiest these dudes ever got) and the country-flavored lilt of “Down By the Seaside.” If the opener “Custard Pie” fails to raise to the level of the other tracks, it’s still a good time, and besides, you gotta love the clavinet.
So there you have it. Eleven tracks of impressive interplay, sense of texture, and action-movie ludicrousness. In other words, highly entertaining rock n’ roll. Unfortunately for us and unfortunately for Led Zeppelin, there are fifteen songs on this album, but maybe that’s the way it always had to be. These dudes love to get into the groove, and everyone knows them for their excess. Would it be a true Led Zeppelin album if they didn’t double down on bad ideas every so often? And Christ, I mean, when this album works, there’s nothing alive that can stop it.