Robert Plant’s early solo career wishes and washes more than a bar of soap.
Going back and forth yet producing a less-than-clean body of work. Some cuts feels impossibly stained while others sparkle and shine. Only one record (read: Now and Zen) remains clear on where it wants to go musically.
Manic Nirvana, for all its flaws, still could make the body sway with eighties arena rock swagger and showed some of the same musical progress as Now and Zen. But even then, it never transcended its well-sourced origins into something new.
But Fate of Nations is when the milk sours. The arena rock sound sounds dated and falls flat. Released way past eighties arena rock’s expiration date in 1993, it was a throwback to a sound that had accrued exactly zero nostalgia factor. Too late to rock ‘n’ roll, too soon to mystify. The rock ‘n’ roll world left reverb-heavy acoustics, cavernous guitar echoes and stadium shaking drums behind. Instrumentation muddied itself in the grunge and grime, drumkits sounded like a ramshackle assortment of pots and pans with vinyl lids. Fate of Nations features none of this. And while that’s fine, it reeks of sameness that Manic Nirvana and Now and Zen avoided. The tracklisting here is not killer, but there are highlights.
Lead cut “29 Palms” features not only one riff worth standing up for—but two! Two! The rest of the good half of cuts don’t even have shit for one. On “29 Palms,” however, the main chord progression and melodic fingerpicking of Kevin Scott MacMichael coo and cut at each other equally. Hell, even the solo is kind of good.
So that’s three-parts worth talking about.
Yet for all this obvious skill, the rest of the album doesn’t feature much talent. The riffwork on “Memory Song” wants to act tough but hits my chest with a tap before falling flat and flaccid before the ears.
There are tradeoffs, too: the ballad “If I Were A Carpenter” features an acoustic guitar worth noting, but Plant’s voice going from soothing to just mindless moaning. “The Greatest Gift” features some lovely orchestral strings and a tone-happy guitar solo by MacMichael, that continues into a Jeff Beck-esque effort on “Great Spirit,” resonating in Blow by Blow fashion. Both cuts bring to surface an island refuge in an ever-rising sea of blandness. But that’s not because of spectacular ability, they just avoid mediocrity. Every cut on this album does sound like a successor to Pictures at Eleven (more than can be said about Shaken ‘N’ Stirred) but they fall deeper and deeper into arena rock pitfalls. And the more they do this, the more they pass into pallid pastiche.
Ballads are there just because they must. The electric and acoustic guitars only try to shake caves because what else is a poor man’s David Gilmour to do? But that doesn’t much bother me.
Chris Blackwell’s disappearance from the mix is just criminal.
Keyboards? Forget ‘em, we ain’t got time for no stinkin’ keyboards. Not even if the album is 58 minutes of artistic limbo. I mean, my god, midway through the album I am begging it to be over. No harmonica melody or riff saves the soul from this musical purgatory. And that’s the rub. There’s skill here but it’s never employed well enough to create a coherently interesting album demanding attention. It fails to move the soul an inch by any metric and reveals that Plant needed to move away from this sound.
Fate of Nations is close to somewhat good, but closer to mediocrity. It finishes the middle chapter of Plant’s career with limpid energy. Ugh, next one please.
Producer: Chris Hughes, Robert Plant
- “Calling to You”
- “Down to the Sea”
- “Come Into My Life”
- “I Believe”
- “29 Palms”
- “Memory Song (Hello Hello)”
- “If I Were a Carpenter”
- “Colours of a Shade”*
- “Promised Land”
- “The Greatest Gift”
- “Great Spirit”
- “Network News”
*UK Edition, bonus track on remastered US Edition