(UMCom) -- Led Zeppelin, one of rock’s most enduring acts, stood as a testament to ‘70s excess during its heyday. Not only did the British band epitomize hedonism, misogyny and overt sexuality, they were shrouded in myths of satanic bargaining. Some theorize that such was the key to the quartet’s sudden and profound impact on the rock world. This myth, of course, like much of Zep’s early work, was borrowed directly from the Mississippi Delta’s musical bloodline and the legend of blues pioneer Robert Johnson (long rumored to have sold his soul in exchange for his legendary guitar skills). It can be more convincingly argued, however, the band’s success was legitimately earned – the result of talent, chemistry and a knack for translating a raw, black American sound into a megawatt missile that soared beyond its obvious musical derivations. If there was anything suggesting the involvement of the supernatural, it would have been the group’s gradual transcendence from innovative plagiarists to purveyors of a fully realized style interwoven with English folk, Middle Eastern textures and lyrics exploring fantasy and spiritual themes.
In spite of Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s estimable talent – which has historically minimized vocalist Robert Plant’s behind-the-scenes contributions – it may well be that Plant was instrumental in taking Zeppelin to loftier altitudes. His record Mighty Rearranger makes a potent case for that argument. The disc demonstrates Plant’s facility with the musical exotica that first surfaced in Page and Plant’s collaborations. It also captures Led Zep’s heady essence without treading too closely on previously covered ground.
While Plant’s sex symbol image was considerably offset by literacy and a stylistic flexibility that set him apart from most rock shouters, it has nonetheless been an albatross around his neck, not unlike the legacy of Zeppelin itself. Here, sharing the billing with his band, The Strange Sensation, he confidently cuts away the remainder of Zeppelin’s lengthy umbilical cord and, with it, any vestiges of rock star posturing.
On "Tin Pan Valley," Plant details his refusal to march in the parade of peers plying the talk show circuits and endlessly peddling their former glories. This smacks slightly of scorn and self-indulgence, given that his current work speaks volumes in its own defense and, by proxy, proves that aging rockers are capable of far more than redundant ruminations. Still, the lyric astutely reveals decay consuming the classic rock camp and anticipates those who would criticize the vocalist for taking a road less traveled. His pleasure on that newfound path is as clear as it is nonjudgmental on the album’s sole acoustic number, the delicately pretty "All The King’s Horses": "I pour myself a brand new start, glad to be falling for the beauty within."
The reinvention to which he refers features a mostly understated vocal delivery and active yet airy arrangements with often tribal-sounding beats and ethnic atmospheres. The songs offer relatively little harmonic movement but are subtly engaging nonetheless, evoking mystery and chant-like meditative moods. It isn’t until track four, "Tin Pan Valley," that the band introduces hammering rock elements (and then only in contrast to the song’s hushed verses). Overall, the album’s power – unlike the kind in most vintage hard rock – is effectively constrained, coming off more like a slithering python than a chest-pounding gorilla.
Plant is reportedly seeking links between African music and American blues and comes closest in "Let The Four Winds Blow" and "Mighty Rearranger." Dark musical figures and shuffling boogie rhythms propel both songs, while the latter features piercing harmonica grit and the pecking high-register piano of Chicago-style blues.
Plant makes numerous allusions to the spiritual realm and while few, if any, indicate a sectarian view, he calls for positive, biblically suggestive outcomes ("sing out for the one light," "break a little bread now, spread it all around"). His questions about the Trinity ("Will they heal the sick? Can they raise the dead? Will they bring it on home like the good book said?") and of God’s promises ("I wonder, will the meek inherit all the earth?") seem more from the heart of a sincere seeker than a cynic. Just as important, they are worthwhile questions to pose to a secular audience because they make no conclusions and leave the answer up to the beholder. Mighty Rearranger, though it paints spirituality in rather cosmic colors, makes no bones about the presence of a divine power. At the very least, the impressively inventive new record shows there’s a "Mighty Rearranger" who can create fresh Plant growth even in the driest, densest jungles of rock ‘n’ roll.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.