When people are asked what Led Zeppelin's finest album was, I suspect that most people plump for Led Zeppelin II or the "untitled" fourth album. My preference is for either the 1969 debut (my review here) or the 1975 double-album Physical Graffiti.
This is not my favourite because of the famous "marquee" tracks, which can become tarnished by familiarity anyway. No, Physical Graffiti appeals to me because of its sprawling and diverse character, epitomised particularly by Disc 2 of the CD (sides 3 and 4 on the original vinyl?). This feel and character may have come about partly because of the timespan of the recording sessions;some of the material dates from as far back as 1970.
This record also still has the very agreeable mixture of blues and folk-inflected material, the last time that this would occur with Zeppelin, before the more "synthetic" and contemporary feel of the last two original studio albums. The set may have the reputation with most people of being something of a monolith, but to me it is full of subtlety, variety and surprises. It has been remarked that Robert Plant's voice is not at its strongest on some of the numbers recorded in 1974, but in a curious way this only adds to the album's appeal.
The first two sides of the original vinyl LP are more what would be termed straight-ahead Zeppelin music, with the remaining space occupied by more experimental and quirky creations. The album starts strongly with the feisty and uncomplicated "Custard Pie", underpinned by a gutsy riff and the always welcome sound of John Paul Jones' keyboards, in this instance the clavinet. Beginning a trend which would span the entire record, John Bonham's drums sound mighty.
The standard is capably maintained by "The Rover", and then by "In My Time Of Dying", a bluesy epic on which Page and Bonham once again excel in their respective departments. Keyboards once again enrich the recipe on the driving and infectious "Trampled Underfoot".
"Disc 1", as it were, is rounded off by "Kashmir". Now this is commonly referred to as a "classic", but I must admit that these days I find it a bit ponderous and even flat. Familiarity may have led to my weariness about the song. To me it just lacks vitality and energy, and this opinion is accentuated by some of the material surrounding it here.
"Disc 2" is a veritable box of delights, kicking off with "In The Light", yet another song embellished by keyboards, in this case the "exotic" introduction, and what sounds like electric piano later on. Some nice sounding guitar solos also enliven proceedings.
It is now that the album becomes most intriguing. Following the acoustic gem "Bron-Y-Aur", we come to the reflective "Down by The Seaside", in some respects a most "un-Zeppelin" track, even featuring some country-esque tinges, but fitting in perfectly comfortably here.
"Ten Years Gone" is a most powerful yet musically sophisticated number, with lovely layered and delicate guitar parts, an atmosphere of light and shade, unexpected twists and turns and poignant lyrics. Of all the longer "epic" songs contained on Physical Graffiti, this one has definitely stood the test of time.
Next up is the very likeable and rootsy "Night Flight", one of the most downright enjoyable items in the whole Led Zeppelin catalogue. Yet again the variety and texture imbued by keyboards is a contributory factor in the experience, in this case the organ. Significantly, it sounds like the guys had a whale of a time recording this song.
Eventually the record is rounded off with two more strong songs. "Black Country Woman" in many ways harks back to the informal and semi-humorous flavour of Led Zeppelin III, and is in my opinion one of the more underrated of their acoustic numbers. Another track which evokes the sense of what fun it must have been to be a member of Led Zeppelin.
The closer is "Sick Again", seemingly a slightly jaded commentary on the rock music scene or life on the road. A strong song, but it seems to me that it might have worked better live than on this version. The backing track sounds quite fuzzy and indistinct; maybe that was intentional, but one is left with the feeling that the song could have sounded better.
Physical Graffiti was the personal favourite of at least one of the musicians in the group, and I can see why. This is the culmination of all the various strands of "Zeppelin music" which had flourished since the late 1960s, polished in some areas, but also with some of the spontaneity and rough edges intentionally left in. A real summation of the band's strengths and idiosyncrasies.