When Led Zeppelin decided to call it a day after the death of their drummer John Bonham, it was Robert Plant who was quick off the mark in terms of launching a solo career. Which isn’t surprising considering that singers will always ply their trade no matter which band they’re in. Not the case with guitarists who have no voice at all. Where do they go to fulfil their musical needs apart from play on other people’s albums and make the odd appearance at benefit concerts? For whatever reason it took several years for Jimmy Page to get around to releasing his first solo album, and what a disappointment it is. Complaint number one: If there’s one way to kill a man’s musical enjoyment, it’s called 80’s production, an aesthetic which may have seemed pleasing to the ear back in 1988, what with all the other shit-sounding albums doing the rounds I’m sure it was hard to notice, but nowadays just comes across as pompous and two-dimensional. Complaint number two: Consistency. But before I rip this album to shreds, I will say that Page brought into the studio some extremely talented musicians, all of whom execute their skills admirably, yet fall far short of taking me anywhere even approaching the level of magic Led Zeppelin were capable of achieving. So let’s delve into the album itself shall we?
Opener “Wasting My Time” is just the sort of big, bombast, generic heavy rock song AC/DC keep churning out on their days off. More like a waste of time if you ask me. “Wanna Make Love” at least has a strong riff, and some decent guitar energy, although the lyrics are pretty cheesy and embarrassing in a David Lee Roth kind of way. Vocalist John Miles throws in a few Plant moments when he can, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if Page hung a large portrait of old Percy in the studio as a reminder to every one of what he was after. “Writes of Winter” is a vigorous and, as one would expect, guitar driven instrumental which goes somewhere and nowhere all in the space of three and a half minutes. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but like so much else on this LP it resembles a demo waiting to be further developed.
“The Only One” is probably the one song which got the most attention from the music industry not to mention critics who were ever eager to see a reunion of their favourite hard rock heroes. Truth is, the tune is nothing to write home about. Plant executes is vocals as well as he ever did, while Page crunches and slides away like he used to back in the day, however one can’t help but wonder that if this is what Zeppelin might have sounded like had they continued throughout the 80’s, then the conclusion must be that they were wise to draw the curtain when they did.
Side one ends with the instrumental “Liquid Mercury”, one of the better tracks on the album, where Page shows flashes of his former self, even if the main riff does get a bit repetitive.
Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird” opens side two, and it’s not bad. Singer Chris Farlowe does indeed have a smooth voice, and maybe that’s the problem. Where Leon Russell sang it in his usual raspy world-weary manner, this version just sounds like it’s been sprayed with too much disinfectant, to the extent that the song’s state of the art cleanliness almost makes me want to get up and give the oven a good scrub while I’m at it. “Emerald Eyes” sounds like an outtake from the Zep days, albeit one that has been polished with multiple overdubs. Sure it has all the right ingredients; a memorable main riff, some atmospheric guitars (or should that be synthesized guitars? I can’t tell). Page even plays a solo that almost gets the fire going, but ends just as soon it starts to become interesting (he’d obviously left his balls back at Bron yr aur). Chris Farlowe returns to sing on “Prison Blues”, with lyrics that sound like they were copied straight out of a manual on how to write a dirty blues song (“I’ve been a bad boy all night long/That woman she don’t even let me/She did not even telephone me”). Farlowe’s voice is so hygienic and germ free, that somehow I can’t imagine him having driven past a prison much less been in one. At least Page manages to flex a bit of muscle, however clichéd the arrangement might be. Last track “Blues Anthem” once again has Farlowe fulfilling his obligation in giving me the shits with his all too professional and sanitized singing. And as far as love songs go, this one doesn’t so much as pull at the old heart-strings, but rather give the listener a serious case of indigestion. The pallid strings don’t help either, and have about as much genuineness to them as a bouquet of plastic flowers.
What is really depressing is that we are after all talking about Jimmy Page, the man who was responsible for more iconic riffs and power chords than half the world’s population of guitarists put together. And what’s even more puzzling is knowing that it took him nearly seven years to record it, only to wind up giving us this, which honestly, amounts to a whole lotta little. Though to be fair, the LP does have its moments, enough at least to justify its existence. I’ve certainly heard far worse (Eric Clapton’s August immediately springs to mind). Outrider is an enjoyable but simultaneously frustrating experience.