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‘Now And Zen’: How Robert Plant’s Fourth Solo Album Made Peace With His Past
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Now And Zen’: How Robert Plant’s Fourth Solo Album Made Peace With His Past

With a little help from Jimmy Page, Robert Plant returned to hard rock for the ‘Now And Zen’ album, without losing his contemporary edge.

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Robert Plant’s initial trio of solo albums proved that he could survive – and even thrive – outside of Led Zeppelin. Yet while Pictures At Eleven (1982), The Principle Of Moments (1983) and Shaken ’n’ Stirred (1985) were all well received and made the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, Plant insisted their new wave stylings should bear little resemblance to the music he’d made with his former band – a stance the vocalist felt he could relax a little when he prepared his fourth solo album, 1988’s Now And Zen.

Listen to ‘Now And Zen’ here.

The backstory: “When I got back into the old shoes again, they fit real good”

Plant’s change of heart was primarily induced by some fresh musical collaborators – not least his new keyboardist, Phil Johnstone, whose approach would also go on to influence the harder, rock-influenced records Plant created during the early 90s, such as Manic Nirvana and Fate Of Nations.

“Working with these new people brought about a different perspective of my work up until now,” Plant confessed in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “Just sitting down and talking with Phil for several nights, really getting loose about my whole analytical process.

“His input was great,” Plant furthered of his new collaborator, “because he comes from the punk era, and yet he has a great love of classic pop music. So as a musical entity, he is very strong, and yet a little aggressive and crazy, which is what I desperately need.”

Johnstone also encouraged Plant to make peace with his illustrious past while working on the songs for Now And Zen. Sequenced as the album’s final track, the intriguing
White, Clean And Neat proved to be something of a catalyst in this process.

“We were working on White, Clean And Neat, and I had this neat riff to go with it,” Johnstone told Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘But, aw, man, but that’s bluesy.’ And I said to him, ‘But that’s what you are. You’re a blues singer.’ He’d denied that he was a blues singer for so long.”

Plant also came to acknowledge a new-found acceptance of his back catalogue: “All of a sudden I was surrounded by young guys like Phil who were saying to me, ‘Come on, that was what you did really well.’” he told the Chicago Tribune.

“And when I got back into the old shoes again, they fit real good. So I figured, why not take a look back and see the whole thing and take everything for what it was without spending so much time trying to put a value on it in contemporary terms.”

The recording: “All he had to do was play, which he did, admirably”

To the great delight of the faithful, Plant’s fresh perspective even led to him inviting his former Led Zeppelin colleague Jimmy Page to contribute to two of the stand-out tracks on Now And Zen. While Page added suitably dynamic guitar solos to the album’s bombastic opening track, Heaven Knows, and the ballsy Tall Cool One, Plant used the latter to confirm he’d not lost his contemporary edge, sampling guitar riffs from several of the best Led Zeppelin songs, among them Black Dog, Dazed And Confused and Whole Lotta Love.

“I just asked him if he would like to play on the tracks, which were already constructed before he came along,” Plant told the Chicago Tribune. “All he had to do was play, which he did, admirably.”

With production overseen by Plant, Johnstone and Tim Palmer (who later helmed the first Tin Machine album for David Bowie), Now And Zen also leant towards the harder rock end of the spectrum on arena-sized anthems such as The Way I Feel and the roaring Helen Of Troy. However, the album’s keyboard- and sample-driven tracks (Why?; the Billy Idol-esque Dance On My Own) sounded like logical successors to the best tracks on Plant’s previous solo set, Shaken ’n’ Stirred. Elsewhere, Now And Zen came into its own on bold, genre-defying tracks such as White, Clean And Neat and the effervescent rockabilly/doo wop mash-up Billy’s Revenge, while Plant revealed he was still in exemplary vocal form on the widescreen ballad Ship Of Fools – a track that immediately established itself as one of the best Robert Plant solo songs.

The release: “Some kind of stylistic event: a seamless pop fusion”

Taken as a whole, Now And Zen made for an invigorating listen – and it still stands among the best Robert Plant albums. Originally released on 29 February 1988, its arrival was accompanied by a heartfelt Rolling Stone feature, in which the singer admitted, “I’ve stopped apologizing to myself for having this great period of success and financial acceptance,” and it was hailed by a string of four- and five-star reviews, among them a Rolling Stone rave which declared the album “some kind of stylistic event: a seamless pop fusion of hard guitar rock, gorgeous computerization and sharp, startling songcraft”.

The legacy: “It is, to me, what Led Zeppelin should have been by now”

Now And Zen’s commercial fortunes also revealed that Plant’s fanbase was more than satisfied with his new music. Going Top 10 in both the UK and the US, the album would go on to receive a triple-platinum certification stateside, becoming Plant’s biggest-selling solo release in the country – a statistic which still stands despite stiff competition from Now And Zen’s immediate follow-up, the visceral Manic Nirvana.

Indeed, Now And Zen opened up a whole new chapter for Robert Plant. Following its release, he continued to embrace his back catalogue by performing selected Led Zeppelin songs, along with tracks from his new album, at his solo shows, and he maintained his contact with Jimmy Page, with whom he again collaborated on The Only One, for Page’s 1988 solo set, Outrider, before reuniting with his old bandmate again in the 90s, first for the live project No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded, and then again for the full studio album Walking Into Clarksdale.

“To me, this record is a very healthy, exciting, musical departure, and it runs in its own pasture,” Plant enthused to the Chicago Tribune. “It isn’t a part of the Led Zeppelin revival, and yet it is, to me, what Led Zeppelin should have been by now.”

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