Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.
This is generally regarded as Robert Plant’s best solo album of the 1980s. I wouldn’t argue with that, I guess, but “Now and Zen” doesn’t do much to separate itself from the rest of Plant’s work from this decade (excluding The Honeydrippers). Like the rest, there are a couple truly standout tracks but the rest is, again, your basic ’80s pop filler.
Plant found his stride in the ’80s with slower songs, and here “Ship of Fools” fits that bill. It’s a fantastic companion to tracks like “Big Log” and “Little by Little,” with delicate guitar work and a devastating vocal. It has the feel of Phil Collins’ best work, and I mean that as a compliment. The other highlight on “Now and Zen” is rocker “Tall Cool One,” which gets a boost from Jimmy Page, though is also diminished slightly by the Zeppelin references tossed in at the end.
My thoughts on “Now and Zen” could apply to all of Plant’s solo albums from the 1980s: he was more a follower than a leader, and it cost him. He’s not the only great artist of his time to struggle with the technology of the era; the synthesizers on “Born in the U.S.A.” still grate on my nerves, for instance. The reverb, the faceless background singers, the drum machines … it all adds up to a level of superficiality that makes these albums hard to champion. There are probably more great songs than the ones I found, they're just buried under over-production.
If you’re in love with the “Jewel of the Nile” soundtrack then, by all means, have at it. There are certainly songs from this period worth savoring; I created my own “best of” collection in iTunes of about a dozen tracks. But in the full context of the fantastic work Plant did both before and after this period of his career, none of the albums from this run place among his best work.
Favorite Track: “Ship of Fools”
Least Favorite Track: “White, Clean and Neat”