When Led Zeppelin hung it up in 1980, Robert Plant wasted no time in mounting a solo career that would exceed all expectations. The singer went beyond the blue-rock format he was famous for, exploring variances of Celtic and English folk, American blues, early rock 'n' roll, psychedelic rock and jazz as well as Arabic, Moroccan, West African, Indian — you name it. To commemorate Plant’s illustrious run, Rhino has reissued all nine of his solo albums with bonus tracks and expanded packaging. Yeah, that’s right, we’re talking Pictures At Eleven, The Principle Of Moments, Shaken 'N Stirred, The Honeydrippers Volume 1, Now & Zen, Manic Nirvana, Fate Of Nations, Dreamland, and even his most recent disc from 2005, Mighty Rearranger.
While all these releases with the extra trimmings were part of 2006’s Nine Lives box set, having the option to choose the best of the batch is liberating, to say the least. Plant’s eclectic tendencies could be disconcerting to the casual fan looking to add a few titles to an existing Zeppelin collection, so having them all might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Pictures At Eleven, the singer’s first solo foray from 1982, predictably incorporates elements of the bombastic slam for which the golden voice earned his stripes; however, the tone and sheen resonates with a forward-thinking ebb and flow. Guitarist Robbie Blunt weaves his own unique and sly pattern throughout, while heavy hitting drummers Phil Collins and Cozy Powell drive each and every song with Bonham-like intensity.
The Principle Of Moments, the 1983 follow-up, extended the formula and produced “Big Log” and “In The Mood,” two Top 40 singles unlike anything Plant recorded with Zeppelin. Even as 1985’s Shaken ‘N Stirred and its single “Little By Little” piled on the pop fragrances and alienated various sectors of the flock, 1988’s Now And Zen made amends by mixing up elements of the singer’s past with the present. In fact, “Tall Cool One” features Jimmy Page on guitar and a few odd Zeppelin samples just to remind the listener that the singer hasn't forgotten where he came from. Still, tracks like ‘Heaven Knows” and “Ship Of Fools” reaffirm the vocalist’s intentions of moving forward without going over a cliff.
Despite flashes of glory, both Manic Nirvana and Fate Of Nations, Plant’s only two solo ventures of the 90s, more or less fell between the cracks, leading some insiders to speculate that his reunion with Jimmy Page was inevitable. With six solo albums under his belt, along with 1984's The Honeydrippers, Volume 1 — a one-off, five-song EP that Plant put together with Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Niles Rodgers, and others to salute early rock and R&B influences — the singer was in the unique position of dictating how the Page-Plant project would proceed, Of course, 1994’s No Quarter was a showcase of rearranged Zeppelin classics that went on to become a major milestone for both Page and Plant. The follow-up, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale, which featured all new original material, failed to sustain the momentum and limped slowly into the cut-out bins.
The one redeeming feature about the Page-Plant union was that the singer emerged unscathed with a flotilla of new ideas. But it wasn’t until 2002 that he returned with a full-blown album called Dreamland. Unlike anything he had released before, this record reached way back to the 60s, alternating wacky originals like “Funny in My Mind (I Believe I'm Fixin' to Die)” and “Red Dress” with obscure classics like Tim Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren,” Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew,” and Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness.” Three years later, he enlisted the same band dubbed the Strange Sensation for Mighty Rearranger, which adeptly taps into Plant’s roots while divesting the sheen for crunching rockers like “Shine It All Around.”
What makes the Nine Lives box set (along with the individual reissues) even more unique is the included bonus tracks. Who can resist B-sides like “Far Post” from Pictures At Eleven, “Oompa (Watery Bint)” from Manic Nirvana, or “All The Money In The World” from Mighty Rearranger; unreleased songs like "Turnaround" from The Principal Of Moments; demos like “Rollercoaster” from Fate Of Nations; remixes like "Little By Little" from Shaken ‘N Stirred or "Last Time I Saw Her” from Dreamland; or any number of live cuts that fill in the gaps on practically every CD of the set. Most of all, it’s a miracle to see how much Robert Plant has progressed and maintained his sense of integrity. Clearly, the voice of Led Zeppelin has much more music inside him, ready to burst and burn for years to come.
~ Shawn Perry