Too much of a good thing? Perhaps. Nine Lives contains remastered versions of all of Robert Plant's studio recordings, from Pictures at Eleven (1982) to Mighty Rearranger (2005), with bonus cuts and a DVD containing an hourlong film that covers the career gamut, with cut-in video clips, a new interview, and, as is Rhino's wont, comments from everybody from Ahmet Ertegun and Bobby Gillespie to Tori Amos and John McEnroe! Nothing appears from the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant recordings. Was this really necessary, especially after the issue of Plant's double-disc career retrospective, Sixty Six to Timbuktu, in 2003?
His early records used the technology of the day and the first pair, Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, dipped deep into the production and pop styles of the '80s and mixed them with Led Zeppelin's ponderous pomp and circumstance. This also occurred on discs from Shaken 'n' Stirred to the harder-rocking Now & Zen and Manic Nirvana, with stops along the way via the Honeydrippers' roots rock cover project that featured the reunion of Jimmy Page with Plant, yes, but also of Page with Jeff Beck. Of course, with Fate of Nations, Plant changed course again, creating a moody, drifty, and dreamy sound -- another portrait of the singer and songwriter that paved the way some nine years later for his resurrection as a recording artist with 2002's Dreamland and a band (Strange Sensation) that found its way with the aforementioned Mighty Rearranger. Plant's solo records have been consistently acclaimed, and he has always placed singles in the charts somewhere. Some were received better than others, and some scored big, like 1988's Now & Zen, with its big single, "Tall Cool One." These ten discs reveal Plant to be endlessly searching and endlessly changing without losing the core of who he was as either a singer or a songwriter. He never tried to recreate Led Zeppelin, though he did firmly acknowledge it finally in Mighty Rearranger with guitarist Justin Adams.
There isn't anything dour in these records, though some have stood up better to the test of time than others. The first two discs in the set do sound hopelessly dated, and at this point, the Honeydrippers project, played so godawful many times on FM radio, has lost its charm and sounds like a slew of cats having a good time playing standards. Still others, like Now & Zen and Manic Nirvana, sound better somehow than when they were issued -- at those moments in time, rock & roll was seldom played on the radio and these are most assuredly big rock & roll albums. Plant played the game insofar as he made videos and played live, but the albums themselves -- with their huge guitar and edgy synth atmospherics -- are far from nostalgia because of that experimentation with rock & roll's sonics. The story is one that shows how plentifully Plant surrounded himself with textures, space, and -- above all -- a knotty idea of what rock & roll was as it moved through the decades. He nurtured his own vision along some pretty sketchy lines during the volatile 1980s and '90s. In the new millennium, it became safe for rockers of his generation to come home again, from Eric Clapton and the Who to the Moody Blues and even Traffic. (Jeff Beck and the Rolling Stones have never really gone away.)
All of this said, it still feels like a lot, maybe over the line. Sure, having these albums in remastered form is a great idea; look for them to follow suit soon -- if Rhino's past marketing track is any gauge -- as individual budget-priced items. There is a very handsome book included with loads of photos and a book-length liner note essay by Ed Vulliamy. The bonus material is nice, but it's far from earthshaking or in the least bit revelatory. The listener/consumer is faced with a dilemma: how often will some of these albums get pulled out of the stack and played? Stories like this one get told in the music business to be sure, but in Plant's case, his solo career -- no matter how successful -- has always been visible, but still somehow under the radar and second fiddle because of the incredible weight that Led Zeppelin's myth carries. Perhaps this set will be acclaimed for what it is, and that would be justice, but it's more likely that it will be considered an incomplete excess, which would be not only unfortunate, but very wrong. Certainly there is an argument for the Page & Plant records to be included here, but those, good as they are, are a distraction more than anything else because they are collaborations. For any Plant -- or truly hardcore Zep -- fan who wants the whole solo story presented in a manner that is pristine, revealing, and elegant, this set will be a boon. For the rest, in an age when the "track" is what matters, a box this size will be considered an overblown excess beyond comprehension or consumer demand, and that argument carries more than a bit of weight.