How ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ Finally Won Over Music Critics
The enmity between Led Zeppelin and the music press was well known by the time their fourth album arrived in November 1971. This was, after all, the band that had been viciously panned on both sides of the Atlantic – particularly in America. Each of their first three LPs only provided a new opportunity to hurl damning verbiage at Led Zeppelin.
But that changed, at least a bit, by the end of 1971 and into early 1972.
Reviewers came around, warily in some cases but with a more positive perspective than they'd brought en masse to previous albums. There was some hedging, but there was also a sense of acceptance that Led Zeppelin wasn't going anywhere – nor was its enthusiastic audience of potential readers. There was also perhaps some genuine, if at times grudging, appreciation for the music.
The Led Zeppelin IV packaging was famously a reaction (or middle finger) to the criticism, with no formal title, photos or indication of who it was and precious little information once the shrink wrap had been taken off. Led Zeppelin wanted the music to exist on its own terms, and those terms proved to be acceptable to many critics – even if few recognized that "Stairway to Heaven," in particular, had the makings of a modern classic.
The most striking change of tone came from Rolling Stone, which had been particularly savage to Led Zeppelin from its 1969 debut on. Reviewer Lenny Kaye was a musician himself, and therefore perhaps more attuned to the album's virtues. He dubbed the fourth album "their most consistently good" release yet, praising "the sheer variety of the album: out of eight cuts, there isn’t one that steps on another’s toes, that tries to do too much all at once."
"Led Zeppelin – a band never particularly known for its tendency to understate matters – has produced an album which is remarkable for its low-keyed and tasteful subtlety," Kaye wrote. "The march of the dinosaurs that broke the ground for their first epic release has apparently vanished, taking along with it the splattering electronics of their second effort and the leaden acoustic moves that seemed to weigh down their third." Nevertheless, Kaye was happy to report that Led Zeppelin's "pumping adrenaline drive" remained intact and praised "the incredibly sharp and precise vocal dynamism of Robert Plant, and some of the tightest arranging and producing Jimmy Page has yet seen his way towards doing."
Billboard seconded Rolling Stone's praise, calling IV a "powerhouse" and saying that it "offers all the play and sales potency of the other three smash hit packages. Heavy cuts include 'Rock and Roll,' 'Misty Mountain [Hop],' 'Going to California' and 'Black Dog,' all of which will put the package at the top of the charts." Meanwhile, Stereo Review called it "great listening ... beautifully performed and recorded ... a glorious elaboration on a now fully developed and defined style in the same way that Puccini’s Turandot is the one last great spangled fossil of 19th-century Italian opera."
Playboy advised its readers to "call it Led Zeppelin IV" and opined that "the real mystery here is that old Zepp has become so good. The group finally has made its own brand of high-volume tastelessness into great rock, and not all of it is at a high volume, either." Also praised was the album's "subtle instrumental effects," and the way "Stairway to Heaven" "ascends into the realm of seriousness – getting into madrigals, yet, and quasi-poetry – and does it without even stumbling." Hit Parader similarly declared that "at long last Led Zeppelin have produced an album that is a near equivalent of their potential," recovering from the "complete disappointment" of Led Zeppelin III.
Circus' review delved into "the schizoid nature of Led Zeppelin," concluding that "if you don't mind shifting moods suddenly from the heavy to the soft, and vice versa, you should find this a relatively satisfying set." Over in Britain, Sounds straddled a line, opining that "it's maybe not their best album" but qualifying that "it's still on a higher level than any other British group of the sensory-overload type." New Musical Express took a similar tact, writing that "it's their fourth and not their 'best' or 'their worst'" while still considering it "a fine new album by a group who can now take a step outside of controversy that expands like a conurbation around the newly successful."
NME also sided on the raucous side of the set – "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll," in particular – maintaining that "the sound of Zeppelin in full cry is most satisfying."
Those who panned Led Zeppelin IV initially weren't insulated from the error of their ways, either. A decade later, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau acknowledged that he "stupidly dismissed it" and upgraded the album from an initial B grade to an A. "This is the definitive Led Zeppelin and hence heavy metal album," Christgau wrote. "It proves that both are – or can be – very much a part of 'Rock and Roll.'"
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