The Rearrangement of Robert Plant

by Rob Colfax

A funny thing happens when you’re good at something: people expect you to do it all the time. And you have to do it exactly the same way: no embellishments, no improvements, no alterations – just do “that thing you do.” Be that person, wear those clothes, drive that car, sing that song. The problem is, an artist has a natural inclination to push boundaries, to grow beyond what they’ve become… while an audience seems to have an equally pressing need to resist change, to demand consistency.

“Stay independent and do your own thing,” says Robert Plant.

Case in point: Robert Plant, long identified as “Led Zeppelin’s lead singer,” writer of the “Stairway to Heaven” lyrics, the man of the tight trousers, golden tresses, magnificent stage presence and barechested banshee wailing. Plant’s post-Zeppelin career has now spanned over twice the number of years he spent with the band, yet each new offering is critiqued mainly in terms of how similar to Zeppelin it is or isn’t. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the critics who give high marks of Zeppelinicity seem to mean it as a compliment these days; Zeppelin, who always had a fanatically devoted following among their audiences, generally drew scathing reviews and disdain from music critics.)

Mighty Rearranger, for instance, has been excitedly touted by many music writers as “the most Zeppelinesque of Plant’s albums to date.” Someone even went so far as to compare its sound to “Down By the Seaside” (a track off Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album); I don’t know what they were smoking, but since “Seaside” is a Zep track I’m very partial to, and since I’ve listened to it thousands of times over the years, I have to say I don’t hear the slightest resemblance to anything on Mighty Rearranger. Perceptions are different for everyone, of course; the fact that someone else might hear something I don’t (and vice versa) shouldn’t affect anyone else’s enjoyment of it. Does that mean I don’t like it? Absolutely not. It’s a good, solid piece of work. I have my Zeppelin catalog to listen to; I don’t need to persuade myself that Plant’s newest release is the second coming of Zeppelin.

One thing, in fact, that I particularly like about the latest album is the general feeling that it shows Plant at a new stage of lyrical evolution while exploring some of the deeper roots of sound and rhythm. There’s an amazing diversity of musical style; the band digs into Plant’s long-running affinity for African tonalities and eastern rhythms, gives a respectful nod to the Delta blues, meanders through some lulling acoustic melodies, kicks ass, rocks hard, and even makes a successful foray into techno-land (if you leave the CD running past the apparent end of the last track) – yet all this is pulled together so consistently and skillfully that it seems almost effortless. What could have sounded like a multicultural train wreck emerges as a cohesive work of art.

While it’s good to hear that reviewers seem to like the disc, it’s a little curious to note that after all this time, they’re still measuring it – and most of his other independent work – against what he did with Zeppelin. Plant himself has expressed his concern about being “a parody of previous success” and this comes across eloquently in lyrics such as these from “Tin Pan Valley”: I live on former glory, so long ago and gone – I’m turning down the talk shows, the humour and the couch… I’m moving up to higher ground, I’ve found a new way out…. My peers may flirt with cabaret — some fake the “rebel yell”… Me – I’m moving up to higher ground — I must escape their hell.

True, Plant still includes Zeppelin songs in his live shows. So does former bandmate guitarist Jimmy Page, for that matter, but Page generally escapes the comparisons to his Zeppelin days. This may be due to his work with voices very different from Plant’s (Paul Rodgers, David Coverdale, Chris Robinson and others) – temporary alliances which seemed to indicate that Page was picking up and moving on, quietly exploring new ground away from the Zep fold – much like the archetypal hermit he portrayed in a segment of The Song Remains the Same.

It might also be due to their respective instruments: Plant’s voice has mellowed somewhat over the years and although he’s obviously still capable of pulling off the Viking battle-cry, his style has migrated into a place where conquest is accomplished more through intimacy than by sheer force. Page’s guitar, on the other hand, still sounds relatively unchanged; his repertoire and style of playing has become broader and richer, but the timbre of the instrument itself remains more or less the same.

But it might also have to do with the visibility factor; Page’s solo ventures, for the most part, have been understated in comparison to Plant’s. Page has also been more reclusive over the years, and has thus been able to sound as much (or as little) like his Zep days as he feels inclined to do on any given night without drawing much comment one way or the other. Plant, ever the extroverted Leo, has generally been more accessible and interactive with audiences who tend to remember familiar faces and want to put them in equally familiar places – i.e., dead center stage fronting Led Zep (another group of familiar faces) rather than the lineup of his current band, the Strange Sensation. Memory is persistent.

So how does one go from being part of a legendary rock band to an independent artist in search of deeper meaning? For that matter, how do any of us learn to stand apart from the crowd, think for ourselves, shed the labels that get stuck to us at every turn, and evolve as an individual?

One thing Plant did to shake off of the constraints of expectations was to deliberately take a break from playing large venues, withdrawing from the spotlight to a great extent. “When you’ve had enough,” he explained to interviewer Nigel Williamson, “you’ve had enough.” It doesn’t really matter how many people attend a show, he added, or who they are; what matters is why they’re there, and if the audience has come expecting something that isn’t what you’re working toward, then the interaction between artist and listener simply doesn’t work. (I get the impression that this may have been a concern for Plant even back in the Zeppelin years; I recall a tape I heard from a 1970 concert in Dallas where Plant, between songs, broke off expounding upon on a bit of blues history to remark on the fact that some fellow in the audience seemed more interested in groping a girlfriend.)

Another item worth noting is Plant’s move to the smaller Sanctuary Records label, possibly in order to obtain a greater measure of creative freedom. In the literary field, new writers who don’t fit neatly into an established commercial niche are now frequently urged to approach small independent presses where there’s generally more appreciation for quirky, hard-to-categorize work; perhaps Plant is applying the same general principle here. When MTV’s Bill Flanagan recently asked him to offer advice to aspiring musicians, Plant said frankly, “Stay away from the major labels. Stay independent and do your own thing.”

Aside from the occasional collaboration with Page over the past years, Plant has been making a clear effort to become his own person in a musical sense, to explore his own interests. He’s been wise enough to gather a group of musicians with sympathetic interests, he’s scaled down the recording process (portions of the tracks on Mighty Rearranger were recorded on the spot in remote locations such as a barn in Snowdonia and a carport in Bath), and overall has focused more on a simpler approach to making music. He’s also learned, over the years, not to worry too much about how his work is received. “It’s not ‘I hope it’s accepted’ but ‘I hope it works for me,” he told Williamson, adding with a laugh, “If it doesn’t, I’m going back to the desert.”

The lyrical content and overall tone of the new disc seems more optimistic than anything since Manic Nirvana. Perhaps it’s the sound of someone who’s come to terms with enough of the past to know that the struggle to be your own person and do what you believe never really stops, but that you can choose your battles, to a great extent.

“If I seem in a good place,” he told James McNair of the Independent UK, “that’s because the opportunities that are coming my way are fantastic. It’s no longer about me scrambling to get away from the shadow of a long career.”

Asked by Williamson whether his newest album signals that he’s “returned to the fray,” Plant seemed to shrug off the idea. “I don’t know whether I’m ‘back in the ring, slugging it out’ – I don’t think there is any ring. I just think there are great gigs and great songs and maybe an audience, and even if there’s no audience, it’s OK.

“In the end,” he says, “there are no laurels to rest on. There’s only what’s gonna happen in the next minute, and what might happen tomorrow.”

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Colfax. Republished 2011, 2015.

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