I am far from Led Zeppelin’s biggest fan. There’s little they’ve done I haven’t heard and, while their best material and performances deserve ranking among the best in popular music history, I never sustained the same emotional connection with their music I enjoyed with their contemporaries like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, among others. There are exceptions.
The band’s penultimate studio album, Presence, stays with me years after first hearing it because I think it’s the most personal, desperate recording in Zeppelin’s catalog. The mounting costs of the band’s colossal success chipped away larger and larger chunks from an once virtually impervious rock and roll juggernaut and self-doubt announced itself louder in band affairs. John Paul Jones nearly walked during this period. Robert Plant broke his leg in a car accident and contemplated bolting as well. The band’s six string maestro Jimmy Page sank deeper into substance abuse and rock star excess while John Bonham’s drinking raged on at a fiercer clip than ever before. This dire three in the morning mood infused the band’s material and performances with a back against the wall feel.
“Achilles Last Stand” is Page’s last major guitar epic with Led Zeppelin and one of the band’s top five tracks, full stop. Presence’s opener outstrips, in terms of imagination and compositional drama, the band’s previous forays into their sort of cinematic scope like “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Song Remains the Same”, and “Kashmir”. Plant creatively frames the mythological material in first person narration, making the ancient a little more familiar for listeners. Zeppelin’s rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Bonham turn in a tour de force outing undoubtedly inspiring Page’s playing to even greater heights. “For Your Life” finds the band’s subject matter in much more every day circumstances much in the mold of Physical Graffiti’s Sick Again – Plant paints a grim picture of dissolution that, coupled with the arrangement, rates as one of the band’s true sleeper gems. The remaining members proved their own regard for the track by giving it a live debut at the 2007 “reunion” – the only track accorded such a honor.
“Royal Orleans” goes in a completely different lyrical direction. This fragmentary narrative of sexual misadventures in the New Orleans French Quarter is reputedly based on some of John Paul Jones’ personal experiences on tour. The writing and performance alike represent a new benchmark of sorts for the band. Keith Richards once remarked that The Rolling Stones’ initial efforts with a country music influence often came off as parodies because the band didn’t believe themselves properly equipped to do the sound and feel justice to begin with, so they played it as a lark. He continued that it transformed the songs once the Stones gathered the necessary confidence to play in that style. You can draw a clear line from Houses of the Holy’s “The Crunge” and this track. Tackling a funk/soul template with the former song, Zeppelin paid loving and winking homage to their American musical heroes and it results in a self-conscious performance. “Royal Orleans”, instead, gets in listener’s face with a brittle, cutting funk edge and locks into a whip tight groove cut with just enough rock confidence.
“Nobody’s Fault but Mine” re-envisions Blind Willie Johnson’s desperate atonement to God in song as a stark, impassioned Robert Plant catharsis. It flows into Plant’s harmonica playing, his scat singing with Page’s guitar, and every elongated note. It’s another Bonham showcase, as well, and his masterful way building drama through timing alone makes this song all the more powerful. It’s, without reservation, another of the band’s greatest moments in the studio and culminates with an impassioned, eloquently phrased Page guitar solo. The woozy rockabilly vamp of “Candy Store Rock” sounds like a speed freak babbling away about their high, but the band shifts into secondary passages with a distinctly stronger rock thrust. What should be an otherwise unbridled ode to the joys of getting it on is colored with a kind of weariness that’s unannounced and unexpected.
“Hots on For Nowhere” achieves the same mood via different means. The inventive quasi shuffle arrangement gives John Bonham another forum, as if he needed it, to illustrate his importance to the band’s sound and he navigates the tempo changes with the sort of spot on fidelity you couldn’t fake as readily in the 1970’s. Page’s reverb drenched “lead guitar” break is either desultory or artfully dissonant, depending on your level of generosity, but there’s a number of similarly styled flourishes he brings into the song that add much needed color. “Tea for One”, a rare addition to the Page/Plant tour but otherwise neglected live, still has its definitive reading on Presence. Loneliness looms over this song and the whimpering, downcast guitar lines Page brings to bear accentuate the atmosphere without ever laying on a single extraneous note. It’s a note perfect, elegiac curtain for this often neglected or unjustly maligned Zeppelin album.