[14 January 2013]
Too frequently, writers—especially those who write review of film, music, or literature—are told to be “objective”. People have a tendency to want not just an opinion embellished with 2400 SAT-level language and an endless supply of name-drops; they expect writers to take a step back and give a work of art fair treatment, using notions of objective goodness or badness in determining whether or not that work of art deserves a positive or negative review. Otherwise, this line of reasoning holds, people will be publishing nothing more than well-worded rants and raves; journalism and criticism are supposed to have higher standards than that.
Now, I won’t argue the childish claim that “all art is good art”, which swings too far the other way on the continuum of subjectivity and objectivity. However, I will say that insistence on being “as objective as possible”—reaching for a sort of artistic “view from nowhere”, to borrow Thomas Nagel’s phrase—cannot ever be done. The host of logical and pragmatic barriers in an insistence on objectivity are obvious: as the wise Angry Metal Guy wisely put it, “If we consider that objectivity is something quantifiable, testable and that we are able to really able to work with repeatedly and come up with the same results again and again, then objectivity is not possible in the subjective judgments of reviewers.” If I could plug in an album—say, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy—into some pre-determined artistic theorem or formula and spit out a judgment that I would then describe in a full-length review, my job wouldn’t be very fun. I would cease being a reviewer and become a transcriber instead. Moreover, no one experiences art in this “objective” way; before us high-minded critics begin writing out our thoughts in long, ambling essays and reviews—not unlike this one, some might say—we experience music through means of pure enjoyment. When I first heard Houses of the Holy, I didn’t think to myself, “Jimmy Page’s folk-rooted guitar playing on ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’” really demonstrates the influence of medieval music on Zeppelin’s sound”; I thought to myself, “This is a damn good song”, and I turned the volume up.
The truth is, whether people like it or not, some music means so much to a particular reviewer that “being objective” just doesn’t make sense. Some art demands that the viewer makes it personal based on his or her experience. For me, a key example of this is “The Rain Song”, the second track on Houses of the Holy. Despite how much I love heavy music—especially the heavier aspects of Zeppelin’s discography—I have not come back to a Zeppelin song more than I have “The Rain Song”. My defense of “The Rain Song” as the best Zeppelin song ever written has to work against a considerable uphill battle: it’s a track that few ever talk about when discussing Zeppelin’s greatest works, it appears on only one of the group’s live albums and none of its greatest hits compilations, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a low-key ballad that relies on weather metaphors. Rock ‘n’ roll, many might conclude, it ain’t.
But while it may not rock in the way that “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” does, it’s so utterly gorgeous and captivating it’s hard to believe it’s not the object of gushing adoration by the leagues of Zeppelin fans globally. You won’t ever hear it uttered in the same breath as “Stairway to Heaven”, but that doesn’t make it any less strong of a track.
After a complete listening of Houses of the Holy, “The Rain Song” immediately stands out by virtue of being the record’s only ballad. Houses of the Holy is frequently labeled Zeppelin’s most creative LP—or, in the words of detractors, “scattershot”—which means that the fast/slow ballad/rocker dynamic is completely absent, another testament to the album’s greatness. For this same reason, though, there aren’t many tracks that one would describe as “beautiful” in the commonly used sense. With the experimentation here shifting between folk, reggae, funk, and ominous rock, the band doesn’t stick within one genre enough to wring out all the beauty it could. “The Rain Song”, however, definitely fits the label. Both the lush studio version and the subdued live incarnation on The Song Remains the Same are career highlights for the group.
The first thing that’s striking about “The Rain Song” is the layering of the guitar tracks. It opens with slowly strummed, jazz-accented chords played on a six-string guitar; then, a 12-string kicks in, re-creating the symphonic effect heard on “The Song Remains the Same”. Right before Robert Plant’s vocals kick in, the jazz stylings of the guitar become more obvious as a glissando chord glides into the tranquil verses. For the majority of the song, the guitar work is very subdued: individual arpeggios are faintly plucked, chords are left to shimmer and echo, and the fingerpicking is ever so delicate. When the thunderous finale kicks in—especially potent in the live version—it’s like the band has finally arrived at the mountaintop. John Bonham’s drumming is absolutely marvelous; though he’s largely absent here, his brief involvement is crucial to driving the power of the song home.
But as fantastic as the guitar work is on “The Rain Song”, a single ingredient really enhances all the other instruments: Mellotron. That tape-based keyboard instrument, the ultimate tool in the prog rock musician’s toolbox, is utilized to maximum effect here, creating a weeping, mournful background to Jimmy Page’s legato guitar. “The Rain Song” isn’t a song of sadness—if anything, it evokes sitting next to a window as rain pitter-patters down the glass—but the Mellotron brings out an introspective, melancholy mood that amps up the overall gorgeousness. The Mellotron is an interesting instrument in this respect; though it lacks the “real-ness” of a string section, its unique, almost ghastly quality still carries the imprint of the strings it samples, while also morphing the sound into what essentially amounts to an entirely different instrument. When combined with the symphonic interplay of Page’s guitar tracks, it creates something of a pseudo-symphony, a garden fantasia that teems with beauty both artificial and natural.
Plant’s lyrics here, while far from his best, are nonetheless wonderful in the context of this song; it’s easier to see the worn framing device of “It was the springtime of . . .” followed by “It is the summer of . . .” as incredibly poignant when its background is as richly orchestrated and arranged as this one. Whereas “No Quarter” evokes the Lord of the Rings-type lore that was in the foreground on cuts like “The Battle of Evermore” from Zoso, “The Rain Song” uses slight allusions to mythical characters—“Keepers of the Gloom”—to underscore a simple weather metaphor. Weather here is about emotion: “Upon us all a little rain must fall”, Plant sings, a slightly more poetic way of saying, “We’re all a little blue sometimes.” Emotion may be a banal topic in the broad sense, but since the instrumentation of “The Rain Song” is positively dripping of emotion, it’s an understandable place for Plant to go.
On the live version of this track, things take a much quieter turn. Page, the only guitarist on stage when this is being performed, is constrained in his ability to recreate the orchestral effect caused by the mixture of six- and 12-string guitars. But rather than play pre-recordings in addition to his solo guitar, he takes things down a notch, playing the song only on a six-string. This minor change makes a world of difference; on The Song Remains the Same DVD, which provides the best example of “The Rain Song’s” live transformation, it’s as if every note played by Page rings perfectly clear. People may point to the litany of his excellent guitar solos when instructing aspiring guitar players (but, of course, no “Stairway” allowed!), but this song is just as much a masterclass of guitar playing as any of Zeppelin’s other rock riffs. Another basic but hugely important move made by Page here is a shift in tuning: whereas the studio version of “The Rain Song” is tuned a step down from standard pitch, in its live incarnation the guitarist needs to tune up, creating a much brighter sound. It’s by no means a tricky move, but it is hugely important in creating a specific aura in the live setting, an essential part to making a live take on a track stand out from the slickly-produced studio master.
So there you have it. I’ve exhausted my list of superlatives, praises, and adorations for “The Rain Song”. It’s about as objective as I can be in describing it. I don’t view it as a bad thing, as I said in the beginning of this essay; the rigid confines of objectivity cannot always hold in what a writer truly needs to say about a particular work of art. Of the handful of songs and albums I consider deeply personal to my growth not just as a music writer but as a listener, “The Rain Song” will always hold an important place, as it was in classic rock that I started to find my calling as a writer. Whenever I hear the sublime outro to this song—a peaceful bit of acoustic guitar work that countless metal bands would later go on to emulate—I’m reminded of why Led Zeppelin is such an important group. I don’t forget how important they are when I hear the other material in their impressive discography, but no other song of theirs truly makes me feel that importance. I first heard this song in eighth grade, and all these years later I’ve loved few other pieces of music like it. It isn’t hard to feel Led Zeppelin glowing as it plays these notes.