So, this is the one.
This is the album that blew with an Icelandic gusto, chilling the spine of a generation that turned in their bell bottom blues for business shoes. Now and Zen receives many hands with index-fingers extended, all pointing at the album, insisting that it deserves a listen but never really saying why. Don’t tell me it’s because he rediscovered his roots. If Rod Stewart knew that get-out-of-jail card he would have dropped the synthesizers in 1982, gone to his backyard, dug up his roots and ate them. Just on the off-chance that he crapped out an album as good as Now and Zen.
(Actually. He already did that. In 1976. With A Night On The Town. Damn. Rod the Mod is fast. That don’t mean he’s good. That jury’s still out. My jury’s still out on whether it’s still Rod Stewart up there or just a shapechanger who saw Barry Manilow thinking it was Rod Stewart.)
To be clear, Now and Zen chances for blowing someone’s fucking mind are slim. Slimmer than that hair on your grandmother’s chin. Because like your grandmother, mid-80’s Robert Plant is ancient. So, just like your grandmother’s baby pictures, I sure as hell am not finding any vinyl copies of Now and Zen soon. Well, I might—you never know what vinyl hounds are going to worship next and if hipsters need a golden god, I guess Robert Plant’s mane d’or is something to pray for. My opinion on Robert Plant-worshipping child cults notwithstanding, Now and Zen is no Holy Grail. How do I know?
Well it’s real, so there’s the first clue. But for real, the elixir of Now and Zen cures nothing, barley a hint of anything sublime. It’s filled with good musical cocktail moments but something was off in that divine bartender’s hand.
Which leads to the second clue: Plant still didn’t quite understand how to balance his musical aspirations with his musical past. On the one hand, at least he’s trying to balance the two. On the other hand—well that hand is shaky and needs more time to steady.
The opening duo are focused and prayer ready. The choir on “Heaven Knows” wants me on my feet ready to worship in chorus while the guitars on “Dance on My Own” want me ready for the miracle that’s to come. Except not everything that comes really qualifies as a miracle of sound. Not until “Ship of Fools,” at least.
Hell, some of it even sounds akin to a begging for benediction.
Trying to like these middling middle cuts is to attempt to love a series of flameouts. They just look for instants, scenes to cling to. Instead of staying in the moment, Now and Zen tries to force moments. Like that moment when Plant tries to conjure his inner rockabilly on “Billy’s Revenge.” Ick. What did that drumline ever do to racket retaliation recorded in earsplitting dB? Or that moment when you realize “White, Clean and Neat” becomes a better descriptor for the noise coming out of the speakers. Or that moment when Plant’s entire, 11 YEAR career as front man of Led Zeppelin is condensed into less than 11 SECONDS on “Tall Cool One.” Yeah, thanks for reminding me but that Viking longship has sailed. Led Zeppelin is gone. I’m in England now. I’m trying to listen to Robert Plant.
Those moments are a reminder of the same people who once rocked like a Led Zeppelin but burst like a water balloon when the man came to get wet. Those moments are for people who once felt what Plant was saying and listened, spellbound, to the pastor. And goddamnit, Robert Plant is worth listening to on this album. Because just like the redeemer, he’s trying to save every misbegotten track on Now and Zen. But by this point, once the water becomes wine more than twice, it’s no longer incredulous. It’s innocuous.
Plant always brings it. Even if it means wrangling one good song from Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, that’s what I expect. Solo career Robert Plant’s only unknown rests in what his bandmates bring to help.
So, what do his bandmates bring to help? A new lineup—a good thing. By Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, Robbie Blunt sounded tapped out. Enter replacement Doug Boyle, wired like a caffeine pill for the guitars on “Dance on My Own” and “Helen of Troy.” On keys, Phil Johnstone continues the big eighties sound from Plant’s debut and sophomore albums. Behind the kit, no more Phil Collins. Chris Blackwell takes over on the sticks and stays on pace and in time.
And by “Ship of Fools” everyone is focused and energized. With the help of Tim Palmer and Johnstone in the producer chair, Plant brings the focus while his band brings the energy. Plant no longer need be overwhelmed by any energy. Instead, he just needs to harness it. Thanks to this newfound energy we have a proper successor to The Principle of Moments. None of that Shaken ‘N’ Stirred nonsense—this is a real, proper, successor. Not because the music is instantly catchy or the hooks sink in deep. Nah, in fact, this album is an itinerant preacher. It’ll need a couple listens before it all makes sense. But it does reclaim Plant’s musical direction and, more importantly, points it forward.
That’s all it needed to do.
Producer: Robert Plant, Tim Palmer & Phil Johnstone
- “Heaven Knows”
- “Dance on My Own”
- “Tall Cool One”
- “The Way I Feel”
- “Helen of Troy”
- “Billy’s Revenge”
- “Ship of Fools”
- “White, Clean and Neat”
- “Walking Towards Paradise”