The final albums in the Led Zeppelin reissue series says the show's over; time to go home.
The Led Zeppelin reissue series ended recently with the releases of Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda, and they really do feel like the end. For me, Zeppelin was about bigness—no human-scaled sounds or emotions allowed. “Rock” as a substance cut in monolithic slabs from the side of a Promethian mountain. Hammer of the Gods stuff, and the last time we get that is “Achilles Last Stand,” the first track on Presence. From its monstrous riff to its epic story and 10 minute length, the song’s gloriously indulgent, but that too is part of the beauty of Zeppelin at its best—it’s not subject to the rules of mortal bands.
After that though, Presence is the sound of a band out of gas—lots of riffs but their genres mire them rather than launch them. I’d love to champion “Royal Orleans” since it was inspired by the French Quarter hotel, but a song about John Paul Jones bedding a drag queen deserves a less generic rock-funk groove. Presence is a great album for Jimmy Page fans, and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a cool coda as it recalls the first album and the idea of rewriting the blues for Zeusian seductions/conquests.
It’s easy to hear Presence in conjunction with the boring The Song Remains the Same as the products of a band that was so used to bending gravity to suit its needs that it stopped paying attention to those subject to it and disappeared into arcane pursuits. In Through the Out Door, on the other hand, sounds like a band that suddenly discovered not hellhounds but punks on its trail. Rather than chart a solitary path into frozen, Lovecraftian sheets of alien ice or verdant hillocks that gently roll in the shadow of a mountain enwreathed in cloud, Led Zeppelin looks over its shoulder for the album and gets into the everyday game of keeping up with the Joneses.
Page’s guitar is reined in (as was Page with heroin addiction), and the dominant sound is soft washes of electronic strings courtesy of John Paul Jones’ Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer, which woefully, irreversibly anchors these songs to their context. Where Zeppelin once charted its own course with the confidence that fans would follow (and if they wouldn’t, fuck them), In Through the Out Door competes on terms set by twentysomethings trying to get off the dole in England, chasing new waves instead of making them happen.
The band chose not to continue after John Bonham’s death in 1980 which made In Through the Out Door the band’s—ahem—swan song. The posthumous Coda only emphasizes what a sad last chapter the album is because Led Zeppelin’s leftovers are more compelling. The tracks on Coda aren’t so special that they make you think they should have been chosen for the albums whose sessions produced them, but they’re properly oversized and powerful. Still, I won’t return intentionally to anything from the album beyond “Ozone Baby” and “Wearing and Tearing,” the latter of which, like most of the album, is limited by lyrics that seem like first drafts Plant never got around to tightening into something more than cut and paste blues lines.
As albums, this final flight of reissues is the least consequential. They contain little necessary music, but it’s nice that the narrative created by Zeppelin's albums comes to an end. After hearing these, only the most diehard true believers could really want to hear what would happen next. Real life pulled the members back to earth, and the limitations of their own bodies and those of the people around them scaled Zeppelin down. Once that happened, they could be great but they’d never be giants again.