On “No Quarter,” Robert Plant and Jimmy Page don’t so much look back or forward at their reunion, but look all around. The music on their eagerly anticipated album and highly-rated unplugged special is rich with music and musicians from India, Morocco, Egypt and even a symphony orchestra. They take old classics and re-evaluate them by deepening their texture with new instruments and styles, and craft new tunes with strong world-music influences. They disregard any protests that the originals are “definitive” versions. From the opening of the album, the listener waits for a few seconds in anticipation of the first few notes, and then begins to hear a song that sounds totally new. About 45 seconds later, one hears the familiar verse of “nobody’s fault but mine, ya, nobody’s fault but mine” from Led Zeppelin’s pulse-pounding 1976 electric-hit. The lyrics are the same, but everything else is different. On this version, the pace is slowed, the distortion pedal is traded in for an instrument called a hurdy-gurdy, and a delicate, bluesy, expectation-shattering remake of a classic song ensues. The rest of the album continues with experimentation, passion and craftsmanship.
Plant and Page smartly choose to redo those songs that didn’t get as much play time as ubiquitous Led Zeppelin hits like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love.” “Four Sticks,” “That’s the Way” and “Friends,” lesser-known songs are redone with care and, in the case of “Four Sticks,” improved upon from the original. The duo’s world music tendencies show up as they retackle “Gallows Pole” with acoustic guitar, Egyptian percussion, and banjo, and manage to make the song sound more like a good old-fashioned English folk romp than the original. They expand the mythic overtones of “The Battle of Evermore” by having Najma Akhtar, an Indian songstress, sing back-up to Plant’s familiar wails. “Kashmir” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” of course sound great, with all the proper elements in line: Plant’s searing vocals, Page’s exceptional guitar skill, an Egyptian string and percussion ensemble and the London Metropolitan Opera.
And the new songs? That’s where Plant’s and Page’s musical experimentation is boldest. On “Yallah,” they loop a simple hypnotic Moroccan drum beat and Page plugs the guitar. Simply put, he rocks. Most amazing is Plant’s still present ability to wail and make it sound as effortless and beautiful as a bird’s flight.
The lyrics, however, have not gotten any better with age. And the new songs aren’t great poetry, either. The whole gist in Led Zeppelin’s music was that the lyrics weren’t very important, for the music was textured, intricate and involving; it truly did the talking. After all these years, the music speaks eloquently, but in many tongues. .