THE ONE AFTER THE BIG ONE: Robert Plant, MANIC NIRVANA
Robert Plant made big news on 1988’s NOW AND ZEN as he, for practically the first time in his solo career, seemed to fully embrace the legacy of Led Zeppelin. It was something he had studiously avoided on previous records, though, to be honest, on songs like “Burning Down One Side” from his first solo album, or “Other Arms” from his second, he couldn’t help but put a little lemon squeeze into the mix. SHAKEN ‘N’ STIRRED (1985), though, had been devoid of much that could even be called bluesy, replaced by a strange coldness that surprised even his most devoted fans.
No, NOW AND ZEN brought back something Plant had lacked, in part by getting Jimmy Page involved on “Heaven Knows” and “Tall Cool One,” and even sampling Zeppelin riffs and vocals on the latter song, a gimmick that made it a hit, and enabled Plant to sell three million copies of the album. It can be argued, though, that it wasn’t until 1990’s MANIC NIRVANA that everything truly came together – where Plant was able to channel his past and incorporate it into a heavy but complex contemporary sound, where he was able to take his blues and move forward with them, to excellent effect.
From the guitar figure that starts "Hurting Kind (I've Got My Eyes on You)” – a sort of declaration of the big rock to come – MANIC NIRVANA crackles with an urgency Plant hadn’t been much interested in mustering with his previous few records. The guitar cuts through some of the more superfluous production tricks (the hand-clappy percussion in particular), cracking the song open so Plant can open up. The “talk about love” pre-chorus also gives him the opportunity to slide into his upper register, which is another welcome sign.
Guitarist Doug Boyle piles on the riffs – the chugging figure on “Nirvana,” the Page-like blast on “Tie Dye on the Highway,” the bluesy slide on “S S S & Q” – and Plant matches them with the swagger in his voice. It’s not that he yields completely to the six-string pyrotechnics; the synth-heavy “Anniversary” gives him space to stretch and give in to the song’s inherent drama (though it also contains Boyle’s best solo on the record, so there’s that). “Liar’s Dance,” conversely, peels back the production, providing Plant with room to go deep into the blues, a circumstance he clearly relishes.
By the time the spacy, quasi-psychedelic “Watching You” fades out and Plant has screamed, moaned and sung his fill, you realize what kind of a trip he’s taken you on, and you’re happy to have gotten to ride along. MANIC NIRVANA is Robert Plant at his post-Zeppelin best, embracing his past and present in a titanic rock sound that’ll crack your windows and rattle your walls, if you let it. And you really should.
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