All-Time Albums: #31



Heaven Knows 4:06 (UK single, #36)
2 Dance On My Own 4:30
Tall Cool One 4:40 (UK single, #87)
4 The Way I Feel 5:41
5 Helen Of Troy 5:07
6 Billy’s Revenge 3:34
7 Ship Of Fools 5:02 (UK single, #76)
8 Why 4:15
White, Clean And Neat 5:28
10 Walking Towards Paradise 4:41

Hard to credit it these days, perhaps, with his status as a kind of living national treasure fully established, but in the middle of the 1980s Robert Plant’s career was in a bit of a funk. Both metaphorically (poor sales and even poorer reviews for 1985’s Shaken N Stirred) and literally (like many a 60s and 70s icon, the trap of glossy and upmarket studio trickery was claiming his muse). Now & Zen was the first step towards arresting that decline, and the beginning of a very fruitful period that saw him sail through the ’90s and into the 21st century on a wave of critical reappraisal.

America loved it, which itself is no great surprise given Plant was once in Led Zeppelin of course. But even in Britain, the pristine ’80s production applied to material that evoked that-other-band seemed to rekindle something and it sold well. In his own words, Plant stopped running away from his past and instead decided to embrace it, and marry it with modern technology.

This was most obvious on the Zep samples throughout the explosive Tall Cool One and also in the clever White Clean And Neat. He also began to collaborate with younger guns who knew a strong melody and an intelligent lyric (the punning wordplay on Heaven Knows might not appeal to everyone, but it gave Percy a post-modern edge at last).

All of this is written with the benefit of hindsight and a greater understanding of Rock history. Back in January 1988, I was still 16 and I simply heard a blistering batch of songs from this album and thought, christ this is amazing. Music by “older” acts was really appealing to me thanks to months of listening to Johnny Walker’s Saturday Afternoon marathon stints on Radio 1, but only if it sounded modern and new. Plant’s previous work held little interest, and I had even less knowledge of it at the time, but Now & Zen was my most-played CD that year.

Like many digital recordings at the start of the CD era, it sounds pristine and dynamic. It has a real zip about it. The drums are sharp and clinical (some might say too clinical), the guitars bristle and snap in that very Eighties way, while banks of synths and female backing vocals bring a real state-of-the-art feel to everything. Then, of course, the songs themselves are uniformly top-notch. Choosing my favourites is almost impossible; Heaven Knows put him back in the UK Top 40 (albeit very briefly) for the first time since 1983, while Tall Cool One was the US hit.

The mood is playful, but serious. The tone does vary from lightweight bops (Why could be any number of New Wave imposters, Dance On My Own sounds like ’80s Rod Stewart on a very good day) to heavier meditations (The Way I Feel, Ship Of Fools), before the sample-heavy White Clean And Neat incorporates all that’s gone before it for a fantastic finale (if you bought the vinyl).

This is how I like my rock music, really. Modern but with classic overtones. Heavy at times, but always tuneful. Plenty of riffage, but keyboards ahoy as well. Topped off with the greatest singer of them all in this genre.


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