Led Zeppelin's final album proves to have more symbolic value than actual musical value.
Even though Led Zeppelin lasted only ten years, it was nothing short of a miracle that they even lasted until 1979 to put out In Through the Out Door, which would become their final album of new material. Despite not knowing that their time together was almost at an end, Led Zeppelin still wheezed its way to the finish line with their eighth record. However, in its defense, an inferior Led Zeppelin album does not necessarily equate to being a generally bad album. Its strongest support and most vicious criticism is actually one and the same: as far as albums go, it’s neither here nor there. It doesn’t add to the majesty of Led Zeppelin, nor is it disastrous enough to actually diminish the legacy of the band. In Through the Out Door simply exists as a loose configuration of songs tied together by the overwhelming and uncharacteristic presence of synths and keyboards.
Although it’s the band’s weakest outpouring of material, it’s truly impossible to loathe In Through the Out Door because of its charm. “Fool in the Rain”, the standout track on the album, finds a way to ingratiate itself onto listeners with its samba bridge, its light, uptempo melody, and ironic lyrics about the fears of being stood up. Despite all the turmoil the band was facing at the time, such as Robert Plant grieving over the death of his son, Bonham and Page’s spiraling addictions, and accusations of irrelevance in the evolving contemporary music scene, “Fool in the Rain” proved that the band could still have a good time while making fun music. Ultimately, “Fool in the Rain” proves to be the band’s last fun song, the only such found on In Through the Out Door.
Contrasting the whimsical “Fool in the Rain” is the sorrowful “All My Love”, a tribute to Plant’s deceased son, Karac. The loneliness and depression that Plant feels at the loss of his son seeps through the speakers like a melancholy juggernaut with nowhere else to run. The cloudy orchestral arrangement, while earning the consternation of guitarist/producer Jimmy Page, works within the confines of this, the saddest and most heartfelt Zeppelin song. It’s a fitting ode to Plant’s son, which hauntingly enough sounds like a foreshadowing of a band on the path to an impending and unforeseeable dissolution.
All things considered, it would have been eerily appropriate if “All My Love” proved to be the final track on Zeppelin’s final (real) album. That distinction however, goes to “I’m Gonna Crawl”, a throwback to '50s starry-eyed soul music. When it comes to closing tracks, fans of the band have come to expect hard rocking tunes that leave them desperately lusting for more, Past songs such as “Sick Again”, “The Ocean”, and “When the Levee Breaks” fulfill this need. By contrast, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a steadier and dreamier piece that sounds more like a waltz across the clouds. Symbolically, it’s the sound of the band awakening from a dream that lasted ten years, rife with fortune, fame, and oh yes, groupies. Suddenly and abruptly the ride was over and everyone had to go back to work on Monday morning, and for a band as majestic as Led Zeppelin, a band that everyone expected to go out with a bang instead of a whimper, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is the sublime sendoff for the band as the sail across the mist slowly fading from sight.
For the few enjoyable tracks from In Through the Out Door, there are even more missteps and flat-out mistakes. Opening track, “In the Evening” is a phoned-in effort, actually sounding more like Led Zeppelin phoning in a phoned-in attempt at a pop song. Maybe it’s because Plant was getting older, or because Page was so mired in his heroin addiction, but Plant’s vocals aren’t very prominent in the mix and on tracks like “In the Evening”, it becomes very difficult to discern what exactly Plant is singing about.
Robert Plant has always been a very emotive singer, and on In Through the Out Door he’s still as expressive as ever, but on a song like “South Bound Saurez” it’s plain to hear that he’s lost his motivation, as has the rest of the band. Although Plant sounds chipper and jovial on the track, “South Bound Saurez” sounds more like an Elton John song than a Zeppelin song. It’s a weak attempt by the band to create god only knows what. Possibly due to Plant’s depression, Page’s heroin addiction, and Bonham’s disconcerting dependence on alcohol, but John Paul Jones felt he needed to exert more control over the direction of the album. “South Bound Saurez” proves that maybe this wasn’t the best course of action.
And then there’s “Carouselambra”. Oh god, where to begin? Well, it’s a ten-minute synth epic that people would expect from either Styx or Genesis, and not the greatest hard rock band of all time. The synth completely overpowers Page’s guitar work and Plant is mumbling inaudible inanities for about 60 percent of the song. Imagine if Led Zeppelin couldn’t wait for the 1980s that they took the framework of their epics (“Stairway”, “Kashmir”, etc.) and immolated it in a pyre of every musical cliché that the decade had to offer. But, it is one hell of a catchy synth tune, so much so that listeners may find themselves unwittingly humming the part over and over again much to their dismay. After about four minutes however, even the most dedicated Zeppelin fan will be hard-pressed not to skip over “Carouselambra” in favor of the final two tracks.
Because of its heavy emphasis on keyboards, synths, and electronic effects, In Through the Out Door can be quantified as a pop album; it’s certainly not a rock album. Overall, there’s a much lighter and poppier sound on this album than any other the band had ever recorded, and as a result it sounds like Zeppelin stretched itself too thin, trying to force a certain sound that was innately disingenuous and foreign to band. There’re some songs that will stay with listeners long after the LP has ended (“Fool in the Rain”) some that’ll make fans chuckle (“Hot Dog”) and then others that will have people begging for a merciful end (“Carouselambra"). However, it is refreshing to know that a half-assed Led Zeppelin album isn’t half bad.
As has been the case with the previous re-releases, the complimentary CD composed of studio demos isn’t nearly enough to satisfy fan’s hunger for hidden gems. This time around, all fans get is a demo version of the entire album that sounds conspicuously similar to the album version of In Through the Out Door. While Presence is the band’s most polished and most well produced album, In Through the Out Door verges on being overproduced, as made evident by the fact that the “outtakes” sound almost exactly like the album versions. “All my Love” and “In the Evening” have slight different guitar overdubs and are a little more prominent in the mix, while Plant’s vocals are much clearer on “Carouselambra” and the album’s opening track. And, disappointingly enough, the demos of “Fool in the Rain” and “I’m Gonna Crawl” sound identical to the album version. Did the band really have nothing else to release for the deluxe edition of In Through the Out Door that they thought they could pass off what sounds like the penultimate version of the album as bonus content? There were outtakes from the original recording sessions that didn’t make the cut, we know this already. So why not release those recordings, or at the very least those demos?
With the deluxe release of In Through the Out Door, Led Zeppelin rewards their mighty ocean of fans with one half-decent album, and then an almost exact duplicate of the same half-decent album. While In Through the Out Door does have some merit, it’s cruel of Led Zeppelin to think that anyone, even a dedicated fan, could muster the strength to listen to the album twice in a row. The irony remains however, that a band as majestic yet primal as Led Zeppelin was would not go out with a blustering bang, but a wistful whimper. It just goes to show that you can’t really come back in through the out door, because the out door is only an exit.