Led Zeppelin's second album, released in 1969, is often cited as one of the definitive hard rock albums, and judging it by the rawness and power which were carried over from the debut record, it probably is.
The sound, however, somehow lacks the inviting nature of the first LP, with a harshness which is not always totally comforting. That said, the "live" flavour is still very much there, apparently achieved in part by the judicious employment of microphones and amplifiers. I think that the "blues" component is sometimes subordinated to the pure "rock" elements, and here perhaps lies the reason for the album's influence on generations of musicians. At some point, the music ceases to be "blues rock" and becomes "hard rock", loath as I am to acknowledge such rigid labels.
Despite this set's reputation as a seminal staging post in the development of heavy rock styles, it is more eclectic than might be thought. The group's melodic, reflective and folk-rock inclinations are allowed free rein on "Thank You" and "Ramble On", and there is some quite pure and authentic blues. In its bite, Led Zeppelin II exudes a distinctive character, removed from the rest of Zeppelin's catalogue, and there are numerous memorable and exciting moments to savour.
The fame of "Whole Lotta Love" can be seen to dominate this album and overshadow all else,and this is a pity. The song's perceived importance is out of all proportion to its artistic merit, in my opinion. Minimalist, it has "shrunk" on me as the decades have passed. The middle section is quite affecting in its suspense and its otherworldliness. Otherwise the allure has slowly but surely diminished through honest scrutiny and over-familiarity.
For me, the album proper commences with "What Is And What Should Never Be." , a classic instance of the potential of "light and shade", with some very satisfying guitar flourishes and hooks. "The Lemon Song" is a song which encapsulates the "organic" flavour which makes the early Zeppelin records so engrossing. The gritty but "natural" feel is very pronounced here - the rhythm section in the middle part, the lovely fluidity of Jimmy Page's playing. The vocal is also given a nice fuzzy treatment.
"Thank You" is a nice surprise in its elegance, gentleness and poignancy. It features one of Robert Plant's more endearing and heartfelt vocals, and the production carries distant echoes of the psychedelic and folk-rock genres. By contrast, "Heartbreaker" is constructed around an irresistibly voluptuous riff, great sounding drums, and "that" guitar solo in the middle. One thing discernible in this track is that the overdubs are more "obvious" in places, a departure from the first record.
"Living Loving Maid", which feels like a natural follow-on from "Heartbreaker", is pleasant filler material, appearing more substantial and musically profound than it really is, due to clever production and arrangement. "Ramble On" is one of the record's definite high points, although if one is not careful, it can pass by almost unnoticed. More light and shade, a generally idiosyncratic and ethereal nature, and the employment of "exotic" instruments make it a pleasing piece. It stands up better than most Zeppelin tracks to the passage of time.
"Moby Dick" is a bit of self-indulgence. A "skip track", to be totally truthful. Great to hear John Bonham's prowess, but I actually prefer the instrumental "verse" section; the strong riff and the flourishes of guitar.
"Bring It On Home" is yet another example of light and shade . The understated, almost reticent bluesy verse, abruptly superseded by more ebullient and vigorous passages , Harmonica is also effectively used. Not a great song, but an impactful and effervescent piece of music. In fact, the same could be said of many of the numbers here.
In appraising Led Zeppelin II, I would say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Few of the tracks possess the capacity to animate the spirits, or to instill real emotion. Still, it holds the attention, even if it lacks the personality and charm of other Zeppelin works. We are "meant" and " supposed" to accept its rightful place in the pantheon, but thinking objectively, I would have to say that it is one the band's weaker efforts. This is not to say that it is a bad album, far from it, but I don't think it is quite as spectacular as the "mythology" sometimes asserts.