I don’t like Led Zeppelin as much as I’m supposed to. I enjoy them, but can never quite see that impeccable, legendary hard rock/proto metal band that everyone else does. Thankfully, I like their initial run of classic albums quite a bit. My favorite is the debut, which has a really crisp, human sound and an abundance of wickedly satisfying blues rock exercises. Led Zeppelin II is quite good but muddled by needlessly murky production, Led Zeppelin III’s experimentation is not particularly successful by me but still has strong moments, and IV is probably the most consistent they got outside the debut.
After that run, they proceeded to go batcrap insane with Houses of the Holy (which I’ll probably review at some point) and then tricked everyone into thinking they were going “back to the roots” with Physical Graffiti, one of the most polarizing albums ever to achieve all-time great consideration in the public eye.
The major point of contention is that it’s a double album, which is a failed proposition for a lot of people from the get-go. I don’t mind long albums, and I definitely don’t buy that they’re inherently bad (not while Songs in the Key of Life, a triple album, features less filler then most single albums). Nevertheless, I see people’s problems with the idea. Most bands that have enough skill and intelligence to make a double album’s worth of content are also smart enough to know that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and Zep was definitely not in that category.
So what did I think of almost 90 minutes of Zep doing their impression of what a “rootsier” band sounds like? Well, it’s surprisingly good. Like, really good. Like, almost-warrants-its length good.
The key word is “almost”, and it’s probably easiest just to list off the stuff that I don’t like to start off. “In The Light” starts out with a really cool atmosphere before devolving into some mid-tempo wanking that completely loses me. Thankfully, there are a few returns to the synthy atmosphere, some nice guitar lines, and a decently satisfying finale. “Ten Years Gone” and “Night Flight” are Zeppelin doing generic hard rock, and a band with the ambition and heavy power of Zeppelin should NEVER do generic hard rock. Yawn. “Black Country Woman” is Zeppelin doing country, which sounds like a decent idea seeing how good they were at the blues, but when I actually listen to it I’m crushed by a completely unremarkable and stiffly ponderous exercise in monotony (though I do like the drumming a lot).
Pretty much everything else is at least pretty good, which adds up to a pretty big win for a double album. The opener “Custard Pie” isn’t instantly grabbing, but it’s a fun blues rock romp with a supremely catchy main riff. “The Rover” absolutely RULES, with fantastic drumming and satisfying guitar, though it could have trimmed its five-and-a-half minute length. “In My Time of Dying”, the longest track on here, could also have stood a trim (especially the ending jam), but the slippery guitar and tonal variety remain engaging throughout. “Houses of the Holy” is a bit generic, but entertaining and even sweet, or least as sweet as you can get with Robert Plant as your vocalist. “Trampled Under Foot”, on the other hand, sparks with infectious intensity and goofy fun. “Bron-Yr-Aur” is an acoustic instrumental that for some reason I really, REALLY love. It’s not all that remarkable, but it’s extremely pretty and offers a nice break from all the heaviness. “Down By The Seaside” is another surprisingly pleasant affair, with simmering guitar and a downright beautiful melody that hilariously shifts to another hard rock romp for a bit in the middle. “The Wanton Song” has probably my favorite main riff on the album, not because of how it’s composed but because of how headboppily it’s played. “Boogie With Stu” is a bit of snappily danceable fun, aided by some incredibly enjoyable drumming. “Sick Again” is a bit underwhelming as a closer, but it’s really catchy and features yet more great drumming.
My favorite song on the album, like most unoriginal hacks, is “Kashmir”, which is the only “epic” on the album that manages to hold me for its entire length. Everything about this song is incredible and well-documented by better sources then yours truly. The playing that manages to be both awe-inspiringly huge and as tight as anything else on the album, the orchestral elements that blend perfectly with Zeppelin’s strengths, the melody that ranges from soaring to humbling, the eastern flavor in composition and playing…this might be my favorite Zeppelin song. I like it more than “Stairway to Heaven”, simply because it’s more satisfying.
It’s hard for me to see Physical Graffiti as any kind of unassailable classic. As with most of Zeppelin’s discography, it’s too detached and oddly lifeless in parts to truly engage me on any level other than “Hey, that’s a cool riff, and this drumming is nice, and that’s a creative guitar passage.” That being said, if you want technicals, this album has ‘em out the wazoo. The playing is brilliant, especially the heavy and engrossing drumming. It’s super-tight with a lot of energy, but that energy comes from the fingers rather than the heart. As cheesy as that is, it’s the closest I can come to explaining why Led Zeppelin will never ever be one of my favorite bands. Maybe they’ll grow on me. It’s possible that Zep’s discography is emotionally and humanly brilliant and I just can’t see it yet.
On the bright side, Physical Graffiti is one heck of a fun album, probably my second favorite Zep album after the debut. I don’t enjoy listening to it all at once (too many generic rockers, even if they are good generic rockers), but the best parts are definitely worth savoring.
Thematic Content: 2/5 Eh? Points for “Kashmir”, I guess.
Lyricism: 3/5 Zep’s lyrics might be brilliant or terrible, but I almost never pay attention to them so I’m not sure.
Diversity: 3/5 A few nice experiments here, even if it is hard to take all at once.
Experience: Dad rock road trip.
9/10. Best Song: Kashmir