Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin's first last album, represents the most grandiose expression of these Brits at the height of their powers.
The 1975 double album Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin's first last album. Coda, the 1982 studio leftover smorgasbord, marks the band's second, proper final album, one that has widely been regarded as one of, if not the weakest of their studio output. In between those two LPs are Presence (1976) and In Through the Out Door (1979), both of which similarly pale in comparison to the releases that span the group's 1969 self-titled and Physical Graffiti. Although these post-1975 recordings often get overly maligned -- In Through the Out Door, in particular, has real moments of brilliance and creativity amidst its eccentricities -- there is a clear divide between Zeppelin before Physical Graffiti and Zeppelin after it.
This is in large part due to the grandiosity of the music. A double album that runs up to an hour and 20 minutes, Physical Graffiti is the kind of LP that gets critics to invoke words like "culmination" and "summation" when talking about its relevance to the band's overall trajectory. This is not without reason, of course; in its composition and organization, it is a literal culmination, as it culls studio cuts dating back to 1970. The five years during which the 15 tracks of this record were written saw Led Zeppelin write some of the most important rock music in history, namely the ubiquitous Zoso (1971) and its "Stairway to Heaven", as well as what is in this critic's view the group's masterpiece, the daringly eclectic Houses of the Holy (1973). When put together in a lofty double LP format, they do have the gravitas of a career summation. In the words of the fine AllMusic critic Steven Thomas Erlewine, the album "captures the whole experience of Led Zeppelin at the top of their game." Whole is the operative word in that sentence, as Physical Graffiti truly does feel like a totality.
However, excepting fans of progressive rock, double albums are usually met with a degree of skepticism, if not outright derision. (One notable and humorous example: in his PopMatters review of Red Hot Chili Peppers' 2006 double-CD Stadium Arcadium, Jeff Vrabel headlined his remarks with, "The following is a message from the Society of Music Fans for the Elimination of Double-Disc Releases.") Fortunately, while the format does often involve a great degree of studio excess, Physical Graffiti has weathered the various tests of time with aplomb. Although it may lack cohesion, it does play out like a knockout punch of a greatest hits collection, except all of the "hits" were brand new at the time of their release. Even a minor and interstitial piece like the acoustic guitar instrumental "Bron-yr-Aur" feels like a proper album track. It certainly sits cozy with its more epic brethren, namely the 11-minute, slide guitar-driven "In My Time of Dying".
Led Zeppelin also manages to keep the numerous stylistic shifts from running too amuck. Often, the transitions between these tracks take the form of clean breaks rather than seamless integration, but they work in spite of their differences -- or perhaps that is precisely why they work. "In My Time of Dying's" heightened closer, with Robert Plant's pipes hitting some impressive notes, is followed up by "Houses of the Holy", one of the more straightforward rock cuts in the Zeppelin oeuvre. The funky "Wanton Song" has the barroom honky-tonk of "Boogie With Stu" as its successor. These genre-hops never feel too substantial such that the record becomes a potpourri of poorly matched ingredients; that being said, it's entirely understandable that some might have trepidation to these 15 songs. As Jim Miller noted in his 1975 Rolling Stone review, "Not that this album will convince the doubters. Anyone with an antipathy to the posturing of Robert Plant or the wooden beat of John Bonham, be forewarned: A Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin." Mischaracterizations of Bonham's drumming notwithstanding, his point is correct: if you don't like Zeppelin, then this is probably the record you should spin last. In collecting some of the band's best rock tunes ("Custard Pie") and their more interesting experiments (the oddball folk of "Black Country Woman"), it does represent the apotheosis of their style, bringing together the rock they had refined to perfection by that point with some of the eclecticism of Houses of the Holy. Pure Zeppelin for an 82 minutes is no small proposition.
With that said, however, it's also worth noting that Physical Graffiti, while dense in the amount of time it takes up, is tremendously fun, a fact uncommon to most double LPs, which are typically revered for their seriousness (see the most recent Swans records for a case in point). This English quartet even manages to bring some of the funk back in, which they pull off far better than they did on the admittedly clever Houses of the Holy number "The Crunge". Like that tune, the Zeppelin classic "Trampled Under Foot" is indebted to James Brown. Unlike "The Crunge", though, "Trampled Under Foot" cops from the Godfather of Soul far more tastefully, all the while putting the signature Zeppelin stamp on that style. John Paul Jones never wrote a better keyboard riff than that one. Along with "Trampled Under Foot", both "Custard Pie" and "Wanton Song" feature funky rhythms, albeit ones that fit naturally within the group's particular brand of rock. "The Crunge" is a distinctive Zeppelin moment in its comic (intentional) mis-execution, but with many of Physical Graffiti's best rockers Led Zeppelin proves that they could not only buy a stairway to heaven; they could also dance their way up it.
Two tracks rise to the top of this considerable heap, each representing a mastery of a particular song type. The first is the gorgeous "Ten Years Gone". Although these guys would never pen a ballad as sublime as Houses of the Holy's "The Rain Song", this song comes pretty damn close. Originally intended as an instrumental -- which it would have worked just fine as -- "Ten Years Gone" features some of Page's most enrapturing guitar work, particularly in the way he layers multiple riffs on top of each other. (Page reportedly used 14 overdubbed guitars during certain sections of that song.) On its own, the song's main riff, so lovely and echoey, is enough to make this a Zeppelin classic, but over the course of six and a half minutes "Ten Years Gone" ebbs and flows, trading off sky-gazing moments of reflection with bursts of euphoria.
The second highlight, undoubtedly Physical Graffiti's quintessential track, is the doomy "Kashmir". Many rock and metal groups have tried their hand at covering or reinterpreting this song -- some surprisingly well, even -- but nothing can top this magisterial incarnation. "Kashmir"'s doomy ostinato riff and rapturous post-chorus brass/mellotron section are inimitable moments in the legacy of classic rock, and on the 2015 Physical Graffiti remaster it still packs a mighty wallop.
As does the whole album itself. The entire project of the Led Zeppelin studio reissues, helmed by Page himself, has thus far been a surprising success, and not a deliberate cash cow on the part of the labels involved. (Of course, the prospect of money couldn't have hurt, either.) That Page is the one taking up the project shows, as the original mixes aren't fussed with too much. Much like the Zoso and Houses of the Holy remasters, the rhythm section gets the biggest boost in clarity on Physical Graffiti; Bonham's drums are crisp, and Jones' bass is elevated just enough such that he doesn't suffer the all-too-common fate of being tossed into the back of the mix. Nevertheless, here, as is the case with all of the reissues up to this point, the difference between the original master of Physical Graffiti and this updated version isn't night and day. The improvements in quality will be most heard by those who already have a great deal of experience listening to Zeppelin. For those who are making their first forays into the band's discography, though, these new versions are certainly the place to start.
Unfortunately, while enhancements in mastering quality have been fairly consistent between the reissues of the first five Zeppelin records, the "bonus" aspect of the bonus discs has been spotty. In many cases, the rough mixes and alternative takes don't add a great deal to one's understanding of the recording process behind these legendary LPs. In the case of Physical Graffiti, not only is this the issue, but there's also very little included given how expansive the actual record is itself. A mere seven bonus tracks are included for this 15-track recording. This could be explained by the fact that Physical Graffiti is comprised of tracks culled from five years of scattered recording, meaning that there wasn't a glut of tunes that they recorded and then cut down into one double LP, but it nonetheless feels a bit disappointing.
Here it's worth noting the words of Mark Richardson, who in his Pitchfork review of the most recent Zeppelin reissues observes,
[The bonus discs] are mostly filled with "alternate mixes", which is a strange concept. Mixes freeze in time a single moment that is the end result of many individual decisions; they document fader settings. Alternate mixes showing what could have happened are literally infinite; all these mixes are said to have been created while the album was being mixed, and there is no reason to doubt that, but the truth is Page could just as easily make an "alternate mix" of any one of these songs this morning and no one would know the difference.
For particularly obsessive music geeks and Zep acolytes, alternate mixes no doubt have the ability to prove deeply fascinating, but Richardson's argument here is correct. While it's reasonable to hope for quality bonus material when coughing up money for a swanky new reissue, expecting for one previously unreleased mix to contain a substantial new insight is no doubt an overreach. There is a certain value to the thought of an old mix being dug out from Zeppelin's mid-'70s archives, but this value is primarily nostalgic, not having to do with the actual quality of the mixes themselves.
This is no notch against Physical Graffiti itself, however. Released 40 years to the day since its initial release, this deluxe edition confirms what critics have long said about this, yes, "summative" recording: this is an album that gives a lot, and then keeps on giving. It did mark the end of one distinct iteration of Led Zeppelin, at the same time ushering in the band's late '70s decline, but listening to it now, it's easy to feel the vitality still there. In 82 minutes, these four English gentlemen crafted a fascinating collage of rock 'n' roll, in the process capping off an incredible five album run that would have swallowed any lesser rock band whole.