Led Zeppelin returned from a nearly two-year hiatus in 1975 with the double album Physical Graffiti, their most sprawling and ambitious work. Where Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy integrated their influences on each song, the majority of the songs on Physical Graffiti are individual stylistic workouts. The highlights are when Zeppelin incorporate influences together and stretch out into new stylistic territory, most notably on the tense, Eastern-influenced "Kashmir." "Trampled Underfoot," with John Paul Jones' galloping keyboard, is their best funk-metal workout, while "Houses of the Holy" is their best attempt at pop, while "Down by the Seaside" is the closest they've come to country. Even the heavier blues -- the 11-minute "In My Time of Dying," the tightly wound "Custard Pie," and the monstrous epic "The Rover" -- are louder, more extended and textured than their previous work. Also, all of the heavy songs are on the first record, leaving the rest of the album to explore more adventurous territory, whether via acoustic tracks or grandiose but quiet epics like the affecting "Ten Years Gone." The second half of Physical Graffiti feels like Zeppelin are cleaning the vaults out, issuing every little scrap of music they set to tape in the preceding few years. That means that the album is filled with songs that aren't quite filler, but they don't quite match the peaks of the album, either. Still, even these songs have their merits -- "Sick Again" is the meanest, most decadent rocker they ever recorded and the folky acoustic rock & roll of "Boogie with Stu" and "Black Country Woman" may be tossed off, but they have a relaxed, offhand charm that Zeppelin never matched. It takes a while to sort out all of the music on the album, but Physical Graffiti captures the whole experience of Led Zeppelin at the top of their game better than any of their other albums.
[Led Zeppelin launched a massive, Jimmy Page-supervised reissue campaign in 2014, where each of their studio albums was remastered and then expanded with a bonus disc of alternate versions (in the case of the super deluxe editions, they were also supplemented by vinyl pressings, download codes for high-resolution digital audio files, and massive hardcover books). All previous expansions featured alternate versions of nearly every song that showed up on the finished album but Physical Graffiti, the first in the series to appear on its lonesome (and the first to show up in 2015), has a mere seven songs on its bonus disc -- less than half of the sprawling double album. Fortunately, most of these seven songs offer something different from the released versions. The "rough orchestra mix" of "Driving Through Kashmir" is nearly identical to "Kashmir" and "Boogie with Stu" has minutely different solos but "Brandy & Coke," which is a rough mix of "Trampled Under Foot," is leaner and funkier, emphasizing John Paul Jones' jumping clavinet. A rough mix of "In My Time of Dying" is drier and boasts different guitar solos, "Sick Again" is stripped of Robert Plant's vocals and sounds appropriately greasy, and "Houses of the Holy" is larded up with perhaps too many vocal overdubs, which leaves the reissue's real revelation as "Everybody Makes It Through," a very rough and fascinating early version of "In the Light" that's heavy on keyboards and finds Plant still sorting through his vocal. Like most of the Zeppelin reissues, the alternate versions reaffirm that Page made the right decisions the first time around, but these seven versions all make for worthy listening in their own right.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine