This record is some kind of stylistic event: a seamless pop fusion of hard guitar rock, gorgeous computerization and sharp, startling songcraft. Now and Zen, Robert Plant’s fourth solo album, is so rich in conceptual invention that you barely notice that Plant sings better on it — with more tone, control and rhythmic acuity — than he has in the seven years since Led Zeppelin imploded. Better, in some ways, than ever.
The punning title is apt. The nine tracks on Now and Zen don’t simply sound contemporary; they point to new ways to transmute roots-rock verities of swing and harmony amid the technological conventions of late-Eighties pop. At the same time the songs show Plant humanizing and enlivening the cool synthetic sound of such Euro-synth units as Kraftwerk and D.A.F. In addition, there is a certain pop-Zen aspect to such songs as “The Way I Feel,” in which Plant sings, “The future rides beside me/Tomorrow in his hand/The stranger turns to greet me/Take me by the hand” — one of the wittier lyrical loops since Lou Reed walked hand in hand with himself through the vinyl grooves of Loaded.
Plant does have some major help on Now and Zen. It’s a tribute to his taste that after listening to the demo of “Heaven Knows” (now the album’s first single), he hired its creators, the song-writing-production team of Phil Johnstone and Dave Barrett. Johnstone and Barrett are young, hungry and gifted, and Johnstone, in particular, is invaluable — as co-writer (with Plant, on most of the tracks), coproducer (with Plant and Tim Palmer), computer programmer (with Barrett, who also helped engineer the LP) and keyboardist. There’s a freshness and excitement to the sound of this album that’s rare today — that harks back, in fact, to the sonic audacity of Zeppelin’s sainted predecessors, the Yardbirds. Even Jimmy Page, who is a guest guitarist on two of the tracks, flourishes in this hot new context.
Now and Zen lifts off with a synthesized whoosh and remains airborne throughout. “Heaven Knows,” the lead track, is graced with a soaring, up-above-the-clouds solo by Page — but there the Zeppelin connection ends. With its clamorous hammer-and-anvil percussion and its jaded take on the new mating game (“Nothing will show as we’re shedding our clothes”), this is exactly the kind of electromantic fusion that Bryan Ferry has sought in vain for years.
The protagonist of “Heaven Knows” is distanced to the point of disconnection. Plant’s own persona, however, especially in the songs he had a hand in writing, is engagingly humane. He gently deflates his old Zep sex-stallion image (in “Dance on My Own” — a metaphor for masturbation — and in the spectacular “Tall Cool One,” which contains the curious come-on “With my one hand loose I aim to satisfy”). Instead he offers himself as is: a rocker turning forty, with deep roots in the music’s past but a lively interest in its present — and future — as well.
This is a stance that allows for both historical resonance and up-to-the-minute instrumental crunch. “Tall Cool One,” for instance, takes its title from a 1959 Wailers instrumental, its motivating stomp from a 1962 Routers hit and its underpinning riff from the Yard-birds’ own cover of the Elvis-era bopcat classic “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Yet, with its expertly deployed monster electronics, the song might easily be mistaken for an anthem from Kraftwerk’s computer land. “Tall Cool One” is a walloping rockabilly track that cleverly avoids all retro pretensions. (It also further bends history with another Page guitar solo, as well as computer-sampled snatches of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog,” among other Zeppelin oldies.)
Even more complexly affecting is “White, Clean and Neat,” an extraordinary evocation of teen life in the mid-Fifties, when the arrival of rock & roll divided families and whole generations. The singer recalls the white-bread pop music that his parents loved — the songs of Pat Boone and Johnnie Ray that rock would soon displace — and his own youthful-rocker’s contempt for that music’s emotional fraudulence. (As a smarmy announcer imparts background gossip about the singer-starlet Debbie Reynolds and her then husband, Eddie Fisher — “They’re married to stay!” — Plant sings, “Beneath her skirts, between clean white sheets/It’s such a long way from the streets.”) But his youthful intolerance has clearly been tempered by the years, and his reminiscence takes on a bittersweet tone that says more about what was won and lost in that time than many a more windy critique.
It is exhilarating to discover such lyrical substance in music already so technically arresting. Plant’s young band performs with ferocious expertise (particularly amid the breathtaking roll-and-tumble rhythms of “Helen of Troy” and on the Jeff Beck-like “Billy’s Revenge”). But the central revelation here is Plant himself, whose taste and intelligence appear to have informed every stage in the making of this record. It would be unfair to call him a headbanger with brains — the lamented Zeps were much more than riff-mongering metalists. But with Now and Zen, Robert Plant does prove himself a hard rocker with a whole lotta heart.