1979’s In Through the Out Door is the Led Zeppelin album that precious few fans take time out to celebrate. Recorded at a time when Led Zeppelin, despite being one of the decade’s rock leviathans, were swimming against the tide of musical fashion. To exacerbate that situation Zeppelin had not released a studio album since 1976 for a variety of reasons, not least of which was a succession of personal tragedies for frontman Robert Plant. Sure there had been the release of The Song Remains the Same, a film that combined live footage of the band on tour in 1973 with the various members sodding about to pad out the visuals during the periods of extended soloing, and the accompanying live album, but neither did much to enhance Zeppelin’s reputation.
Heading to ABBA’s recording studio, Led Zeppelin were becoming an increasingly schizophrenic band. On one half you had John Bonham and Jimmy Page struggling with their substance abuse issues, while John Paul Jones and Robert Plant were far more disciplined, getting to the studio on time, and generally pushing the project forward. This resulted in In Through the Out Door being the album on which Plant and Jones were the primary creative forces, with Page taking something of a back seat. It’s no surprise then that In Through the Out Door is the Led Zeppelin album which leans most heavily on Jones’ keyboard and arrangement skills, and has Plant exploring lyrical concerns somewhat more mature than just how bloody amazing it was to be in Led Zeppelin.
One thing you cannot accuse In Through the Out Door of being is just another Led Zeppelin album, as under the creative direction of Plant and Jones the band actually diversified their sound, even manging to shoehorn a bit of samba influence onto the album. It is perhaps notable that the only song on In Through the Out Door where Jones does not receive a writing credit is its nadir, “Hot Dog”, a tune which manages to be both lazy and silly in equal measure. Sure, it was probably intended as a bit of light relief from the emotional heaviness of the rest of the album, but in truth it stands out like a sore thumb and drags the listener out of the mood of the album.
Where it does hit the spot, In Through the Out Door, is home to some of the most satisfying music Led Zeppelin released. Opener “In the Evening” establishes that the band were not afraid to adapt their hard rocking sound to make the most of the cutting-edge studio technology available to them, while “Fool in the Rain” is a late period gem. Best of all though is “All of My Love”, where Plant, with Jones’ assistance, manages to nail down one of the most emotionally impactful of all Led Zeppelin numbers, by way of a ballad informed by the death of his infant son. Sure, it opened the floodgates to countless bands recording power ballads that had not even a tiny fraction of “All of My Love”’s emotional heft, but that’s no fault of Led Zeppelin. As fate would have it, it ended up being the band’s final truly great moment, and is the moment on In Through the Out Door where the whole band sound like they’re utterly focused on absolutely nailing a song.
In retrospect, yes, In Through the Out Door is patchy. But it also captures the sound of one of the biggest bands on the planet rolling the dice and evolving their sound in order to continue to remain relevant as they step into a new decade. Sure, there’s a couple of misfires, but at least they’re not lazily churning out the same thing, and they’re doing their best to give Led Zeppelin a new lease of life. Of course, barely 13 months after In Through the Out Door’s release, John Bonham would pass away, and Plant, Jones and Page would subsequently announce that they could not continue without their beloved band mate.
And that was that. Outside of the odds and sods collection, Coda, and a clutch of archive / live reunion releases, In Through the Out Door was effectively Led Zeppelin’s swansong instead of their first album in a creative metamorphosis. It’s no disaster, but you can’t help escape the feeling that it was just the start of something new for the band.