When you listen to guitarist Jimmy Page talk about Led Zeppelin now – about the importance of the synergy they shared and the extensive research he puts into each of the band’s reissues – you start to understand why Led Zeppelin worked so well and why it had to end when it did. Even when the band’s faith began to wane toward the end of their run, there was always talk of maintaining the integrity of Led Zeppelin and what it stood for — what it was in the abstract.
Page has characterized it most eloquently as an affair of the heart, perhaps best capturing the deeply emotional nature of the bond and forecasting its impending, abrupt end. If you read between the lines, when Page creeps out of his vault to introduce never-before-heard arrangements of “Stairway to Heaven” or alternate mixes to “Rock and Roll”, he does so not to revisit the music, which he’s had access to for decades. He does it to revisit a time when a quartet of British gentlemen were so in sync that they existed as a singular organism.
It makes sense, then, that the greatest Led Zeppelin LP is the one they lived, the one recorded in The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside the Victorian house in East Hampshire, the one Page described to Rolling Stone as a commitment, “eating and sleeping music together.” There are few rock albums more celebrated than Led Zeppelin IV, and with good reason: It’s Led Zeppelin at their most ambitious, testing the limits of their baroque sound and layering the fringes with intricate details while refusing to walk over the same ground twice. The songs are as much a byproduct of their free time at Headley Grange as they were of their mobile sessions. The album’s punchy opener, “Black Dog”, takes its title from a sexually adventurous Labrador Retriever that would wander the grounds, and its lasciviousness spills over into the refrain, which pants, whimpers, and wags its tail lusting for a woman’s touch. Even more, the song works as a metaphor for the album’s rich depth of field.
Led Zeppelin IV tramples over varied terrain with reckless abandon. Its fearlessness is one that only comes from harmony of vision; the album is daring and curious enough to explore folk dreamscapes in “The Battle of Evermore” and still trudge through the murky bayou blues of “When the Levee Breaks”. The two songs are so remarkably different in tone and texture – really, they aren’t even in the same atmosphere — but they are both instrumental to IV as a whole. “The Battle of Evermore” segues into one of the all-time greatest rock epics, and “When the Levee Breaks” anchors the album in dense blues and a heavy message delivered with great conviction from one of the most distinguished voices in rock. The fourth untitled Led Zeppelin album melds fantasia and fantasy into a passionate blues rock fireball born out of the ashes of the old guard.
The magic is in the symbiosis, and the balance it produced. Led Zeppelin IV is equal parts substance and whimsy, stout in its rock principles, yet fluid in its execution, and always willing to do something weird if it means doing something interesting. “Four Sticks” rumbles through its progressions with a patty-cake slapping rhythm while the guitar wails on the off beat. That’s particularly poignant considering Robert Plant opens the song in a trembling croon: “Oh, baby … it’s cryin’ time.” Immediately after, he screeches out, “Got to try to find a way/ Got to try to get away.” His lyrics are escapist; he chases freedom, a new frontier. The song that follows is “Going to California”, and what a fitting transition. Everything clicks at the same frequency; everything works.
The bonus material on this reissue creates a nice, decorative touch, one that gives off the impression that Page still makes every decision as meticulously as he did as a producer. The remastered mixes highlight how incredibly complex the arrangements were originally, a testament to the true magnitude of Led Zeppelin’s vision all those years ago. The mandolins and guitars dance crisply in unison on “The Battle of Evermore”. “When the Levee Breaks” is even darker and more dramatic. “There isn’t a color to describe it,” Page joked in that Rolling Stone interview. “It’s not black. It’s darker than that.” When perusing the additions, it’s easy to see just how much he still cares and easy to be reminded how great Led Zeppelin was at the peak of their powers. The fans will always remember the music as something of an unchanging monolith — but the true bedrock of the Led Zeppelin experience was the band’s permeating chemistry. Led Zeppelin IV was a fiery affair of the heart that burned white hot as long as it could.
Essential Tracks: “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Battle of Evermore”, and “When the Levee Breaks”