ONE THOUGHT CLOUDS the mind and weighs heavy on the soul of the aging rock god: "Even though I have filled the Megadome in every American city five times over; even though I have shagged every model in Europe; and even though teenagers have worshipped and masturbated to my image, I too will grow old. I will grow jowls. I too will mumble to myself, and accidentally soil my trousers." Alas, one must relinquish the throne of the Golden God when one's bladder becomes intractable.
With these issues of mortality in mind, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have reunited to record Walking into Clarksdale, effectively forcing classic-rock fans the world over to answer the question What is the sound of formerly pressed flesh as it sags? Ahh, it is an unsettling sound--wobbly, frail, and, at moments, almost sublime.
On hand to document this presumably morbid spectacle is fallen underground supergrouch Steve Albini, fresh from his sellout gigs as producer of the most recent offerings from Bush and Veruca Salt. As usual, Steve just sets up the mics and lets the drama unfold, a strategy that works just fine for PJ Harvey and the Jesus Lizard but seems somewhat imprudent in the case of creaky rock icons in need of a little aural airbrushing.
Consequently, the success of any given track depends (no pun intended) on the spunk level ye old P&P were able to muster in the studio that day. The opener, "Shining in the Light," is spry and lean, with a chorus catchier than any found on, say, Presence. By track two, however, we are trapped inside the six-minute-plus nostalgia dirge "When the World Was Young," the first of many songs to feature Plant's hyperextended take on his old whimper 'n' whine vocal style.
The big surprises here come from Page, whose complexion was looking ominously waxy way back in '85 when he was peddling product for his dino-rock "super" group, the Firm. His guitar work on Clarksdale is wildly inconsistent, but it provides most of the album's thrills. Four minutes into the by-the-numbers bloozerock of the title track (which is about a "stranger at the crossroads" or some such drivel), Pagey blasts out of nowhere with a solo that can only be described as, eh-hem: totally fucking wicked. One song later, he's fumbling for the right note, sounding like he's trying not to drool on himself. Clarksdale works best when Plant and Page stop sounding "old" and start sounding "mature." "Blue Train" and, most notably, "Heart in Your Hand" are delicate, mellifluous things that showcase Page's shimmering guitar, which can still suggest it holds secrets you and I will never know.
"Upon a Golden Horse," the one song where Plant truly comes alive, swirls and spins, propelled by those trademark "Eastern" string arrangements that have delighted pot-smoking high school "students" for decades. Nothing here approaches the grandeur of "Rain Song," the brute force of "Communication Breakdown," or the epic ambitions of "Dazed and Confused." But considering that P&P were decomposing before our very ears 10 years ago during the Zep reunion at the Atlantic Records anniversary shindig, Clarksdale is a small wonder.
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