Hearing John Bonham play the drums is the aural equivalent of watching Clint Eastwood club eight bad guys over the head with a two-by-four while driving a derailed locomotive through their hideout. Either you are horrified by all that blood on the floor, or you wish you could do it yourself. No one’s ever going to accuse Bonham of subtlety, but everyone should give him credit for consistency. Even on Led Zeppelin’s worst effort (Houses of the Holy), he flails with so much exuberance that I find myself hoping that thugs from strange foreign countries will attack me on the street so I can play “Moby Dick” on their strange foreign heads.
Sadly, Bonham’s exuberance on In through the Out Door is matched only by Robert Plant’s appetite for inanity. Never a power as a lyric writer, Plant has followed a simple pattern in his singing: when Jimmy Page gave him great guitar riffs to phrase around, Plant was great. When Page didn’t, Plant wasn’t. On their masterpiece, “Dazed and Confused,” for example, Plant made the same old misogyny sound like profound insight, while Page thundered through his orchestral guitar rumble.
Of the seven songs on In through the Out Door, only one has orchestral guitar rumble, and Plant’s singing has fallen to the occasion in the other six. With this paucity of good music to work with, Plant fails to create phrasing good enough to disguise the lyrics, which are horrible. Three out of four tunes on side one are addressed to “Baby.” Granted that Plant is very upset with Baby because she left him, but thirteen and a half minutes is stretching the mourning period a bit far.
If perchance Robert Plant meets someone who doesn’t dump on him, he should avoid calling her “the apple of my eye” or she will probably reject him, just as I am rejecting “I’m Gonna Crawl,” in which he sings that cliché almost as if it meant something. Any band portraying itself as mystical romantic poets ought to go to the minimal trouble of being obscure enough to cover up its lack of anything to say.
As you might suspect, In through the Out Door‘s best number is the one in which you can understand the least words. This is “In the Evening,” a classic Zeppelin orchestral guitar rumble halfway between “When the Levee Breaks” and “In the Light.” The only line I was able to understand was “Oh oh I need zoo love.” Judging by Plant’s convincing orgasmic moans on the rest of it, I would rather guess at the remaining lyrics.
Back when Led Zeppelin was setting the heavy-metal standard (LPs I through IV) for all time, Jimmy Page was coming up with two or three great guitar riffs on damn near every tune. A lot of them were copped from Mississippi Delta blues masters like Robert Johnson, but knowing where to steal is every great artist’s dirty little secret. Page now appears to have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns, because “In the Evening” has the only great guitar riff on the entire album. The rest of the songs are based on John Paul Jones’ keyboard work. Though an excellent musician, Jones functions best behind Page, not in front of him.
Side two consists of three of the least effective songs the band has ever recorded. “Carouselambra,” the opener, is built on an extremely lame keyboard riff and clocks in at an absurd 10:28. Repetition to weave a hypnotic effect has always been part of the Zeppelin sound, but what they are repeating here is not worth the effort. “All My Love” and “I’m Gonna Crawl,” both slow and incorporating synthesized violins, let the record peter out instead of climax. Side one qualifies as occasionally interesting — particularly the heavy-metal square dance, “Hot Dog,” and Bonham driving a locomotive through the mariachi (I think) beat in the middle of “Fool in the Rain”—but the only cut I’ll return to with any enthusiasm is “In the Evening.”
I thought Van Halen was going to be the next Led Zeppelin until they succumbed to the law of diminishing returns on their second album. Now — with Page’s creativity apparently failing and no one able to compensate — even Led Zeppelin is not Led Zeppelin. I wonder who wants the throne bad enough to take it.