Robert Plant opens Carry Fire with "The May Queen," a song that can't help but stir up memories of "Stairway to Heaven," the most mystical number Led Zeppelin ever cut. "The May Queen" doesn't sound a thing like "Stairway to Heaven," which is deliberate. As Plant murmurs about "the dimming of his light," the churning folk-rock -- a rootless, restless gypsy hybrid of American, English, and Middle East traditions -- comes to crest upon a violin line that appears to quote "Prodigal Son," a gospel blues attributed to Robert Wilkins.
Solo album number 11 from Led Zeppelin’s ex-frontman/lemon squeezer is very much in the mode of his previous release of three years earlier, 2014’s terrific lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar. His talented, multi-instrumentalist backing quartet, appropriately named The Sensational Space Shifters, shares writing credits on 10 of the 11 tracks (the lone outlier is a radically rearranged, psychedelic version of Ersel Hickey’s 1958 hit “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” featuring the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde) and the dreamy/percussive folk/world music/acoustic-electric approach remains intact.
But Plant is also getting political in his old age, perhaps spurred by recent world events.
Robert Plant has always embraced the folkloric. The songs he wrote for Led Zeppelin referenced Viking sagas, Tolkien, and tales of the occult, while his solo efforts have often sought inspiration in American myths and folk traditions. The singer-songwriter relishes myths not just for their historic or formal qualities, but for the rich language they offer, and on Carry Fire he taps into familiar archetypes—faithless lovers, conquering explorers, wayfaring strangers—to make sense of his own life experience.
In recent years Robert Plant has been defined by a stylistic restlessness, but his 11th solo album doesn’t deviate wildly in tone from 2014’s Lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar. He’s backed once again by the Sensational Space Shifters, who artfully flesh out the rock and folk elements with splashes of bendir, oud and djembe. Lyrically Carry Fire sees Plant address bigger issues, whether the evils of colonialism on New World (for its diametrically opposed perspective, it’s a yin to Immigrant Song’s yang) or nationalism on Carving Up the World Again.
Can I just begin by saying how thrilled I am that Robert Plant continues to make wonderfully unique music well into the 21st century? This is a man who once fronted one of rock music’s most powerful, influential bands and could very well have slipped into irrelevance and cheesy nostalgia tours, but his post-Led Zeppelin career has always shown him to be an artist who prefers to take the road less traveled—or at least the one less predictable.
Plant began cranking out solo albums in 1982, two years after the death of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, and the music he was producing was decidedly different than what was probably expected of him at the time. Most of his singles throughout the ‘80s—notably “Burning Down One Side”, “Big Log”, “In the Mood”, and “Little By Little”—probably had more in common with indie rock than bluesy metal.
The first time Robert Plant sang about the May Queen, her spring cleaning was causing a bustle in a hedgerow on Stairway To Heaven; a song that came to define the enormity of Led Zeppelin while simultaneously handing naysayers a stick with which to beat the group. It was even mockingly immortalised in cinema, as a cornerstone gag in Wayne.
Maybe it’s the times we live in, with the knowledge and diverse resources available to musicians, but despite the parlous state of the industry, for veterans with more than a scintilla of curiosity, age is not necessarily a process of inevitable artistic deterioration. Robert Plant has just turned 69 and there’s a distinctly melancholic, late autumnal feel to some of the lyrics on Carry Fire. However, in its intricate, hybrid weave of folk, rock, North African rhythms and stylings, and even discreetfibres of electronica, this album represents a higher creative point than, say, his somewhat poodle-haired solo work of the early 1980s..
Robert Plant has conducted himself with more integrity and class than just about any other legacy rock star around. Regularly fending off obscenely lucrative offers for a Led Zeppelin reunion, he forges his own path, putting out solo albums at a fairly prolific pace. He struck gold a decade ago with Raising Sand, his collaboration with Alison Krauss, while 2010's Band of Gold was another winner that featured fresh takes on outside material.
Judged by those high standards, new album Carry Fire is a slight disappointment. Yes, Plant's ….