“Carry Fire” (Nonesuch Records)
“Lay down in sweet surrender, your love so warm and tender…”
Robert Plant opens his new record with this melodic instruction/request. And really, if the Golden God of Rock desires your presence in a supine position, who among us can resist?
Robert Anthony Plant is a self-proclaimed “Black Country Boy,” born in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, he grew up Kidderminster, Worcestershire. He became obsessed with Elvis Presley early on and by his teen years began delving into American Blues musicians like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson.
He jettisoned conventional career plans to be an accountant, instead diving head first into the vibrant Midlands Blues scene. He sang in a series of bands, some included protean drummer John Bonham. By the time he was 20 he had fronted two local bands, the Crawling King Snakes and Band Of Joy.
When ex-Yardbird guitarist Jimmy Page was starting a new band, he recruited multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, and initially hoped to enlist Blues-belter Terry Reid as his vocalist. But Reid had embarked on a promising solo career and he demurred. He also recommended that Page consider Robert Plant for the job.
At their very first meeting, Page and Plant played records and bonded over mutual influences. Robert suggested John Bonham on drums, the band’s line-up was complete, Led Zeppelin was born. Their sound quickly coalesced, a heady brew of Blues and Psychedelia, it also contained elements of Folk, World, Funk and Reggae.
Of course, Led Zeppelin went on to become one of the most influential bands in Rock N Roll History. (Second only to the Beatles). Their all-encompassing sound was matched by the hedonistic excess on the road. Although their music was woefully under-appreciated by critics, (most famously Rolling Stone), their commercial success was astounding.
Sadly, the years of decadence and sybaritic debauchery took its toll. In 1977, tragedy struck when Robert Plant’s five year old son Karac died from a stomach infection. Three years later, following a night dipsomaniacal drinking, John Bonham was found dead at age 32. He had fallen asleep and choked on his own vomit. Suddenly an unstoppable juggernaut had ground to a halt.
From 1968 until 1980, Led Zeppelin ruled the world. Following the untimely death of their drummer, heartbroken and grief-stricken, the remaining members quietly called it quits. Two years later, Robert Plant tentatively launched a solo career.
His first solo album, Pictures At Eleven came in 1982. He quickly followed up the next year with The Principle Of Moments. Neither traded on the bombastic crunch of his Zeppelin sound, instead his music offered a quieter, more nuanced approach. Working on his own allowed him to follow his myriad influences. From the swivel-hipped Rockabilly of Elvis Presley, to the Delta Blues of Bukka White, to the Modal vocalese of Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian woman widely regarded as the greatest female Arabic singer in history.
Even though he continued to concentrate on his solo career, Robert Plant occasionally reunited with Jimmy Page. In 1984 they collaborated as the Honeydrippers, recording an EP of ‘50s era Rock N’ Roll. The album topped the charts.
Ten years later MTV asked the pair to participate in their “Unplugged” series. Naturally the duo couldn’t limit themselves to a strictly acoustic format. Instead, their performance featured a full orchestra, mandolin, hurdy gurdy, electric guitar and Hozam Ramzy’s Egyptian Ensemble. The live set was released on CD as No Quarter, and they followed up with a world tour as well as a full-fledged (albeit less interesting), duo album, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale.
Robert’s solo career moved at its own meandering pace. From 1985 to 1990 he released Shaken N’ Stirred, Now And Zen and Manic Nirvana. 1993 saw the arrival of Fate Of Nations. His first solo record of the 21st century, Dreamland, hit stores in 2002 and Mighty ReArranger, appeared in 2005.
Two years later he took another detour, when producer T-Bone Burnett suggested he collaborate with Bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss. The album, Raising Sand, was an enormous critical and commercial success, netting the pair five Grammy awards, including Album Of The Year.
As the Robert and Alison were readying a world tour, he was asked to participate in a Zeppelin reunion headlining a benefit concert in the memory of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Jason Bonham, son of John, and an acclaimed drummer in his own right, was recruited to take his dad’s place behind the kit.
Plant, Page and Jones, had reconvened two times previously, at Live Aid in 1985 and for Atlantic Records’ 25th anniversary. Both performances were underwhelming at best. This time out they took no chances. The four-piece woodshedded extensively, and the performance at London’s 02 Arena was an artistic triumph.
Of course fans and promoters clamored for a Led Zep world tour, but Robert Plant had already planned a tour with Alison Krauss. He insisted he was interested in exploring new vistas, not excavating the past.
His next musical adventure involved resurrecting the name of his pre-Zep group, Band Of Joy. It also took him down a deeper Americana path. He enlisted multi-instrumentalists, (and well-known musicians), Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, as well as bassist Byron House, drummer Marco Giovino. Best of all, acclaimed singer-songwriter Patty Griffin also joined the line-up.
The eponymous effort, released in 2010, didn’t scale the commercial Heights of Raising Sand, but it did garner a Grammy nomination. Off-stage Robert and Patty struck up a romantic collaboration and set up house together in Austin, Texas. The relationship lasted more than four years, cratering on geographical differences and his self-described “Black Country character.”
His next record, Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar, released in 2014, reconfigured his 2005 Strange Sensation band as The Sensational Space Shifters. It also dealt with the emotional fallout from his break-up with Patty. A cinematic effort, it contained some of his most beautiful and poetic imagery.
Now, 35 years after the release of his first solo record, Robert has returned with the Space Shifters and his 11th solo venture, Carry Fire. The album opens with an insistent Djembe beat and the seductive North African groove of “The May Queen.” Lush and hypnotic, the track layers the sinewy scratch of a stylus hitting vinyl, over strummy acoustic guitar and sawing violin. Much like Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” this Black Country Bob is warm and inviting, confiding “Inside my waves are breaking…oh light of my salvation, I’m seeking love and glory, just like I always do.”
Robert Plant’s music has rarely concentrated on current events, in fact, during his Zeppelin years, his lyrics centered on misty mountains Hobbit-y depths of Mordor and Tangerine Queens. But three songs here feel explicitly political. “New World….” is fueled by chunky power chords and a rock steady beat. A shimmery roundelay, the swirly melody and serpentine guitars nearly camouflage lyrics that rail against the white patriarchy, colonization and slavery; “Educate the ‘noble savage’ the great white father’s word is law, subjugate them to liberate them the poison pen, the bloody sword”
“Carving Up The World Again…a wall and not a fence,” is an brittle excoriation of Brexit and the current White House occupant. It’s built on a roiling Watusi rhythm that hopscotches over snaky guitars and slithery keys. The lyrics take aim at recent anti-immigration policies; “Emperors and sultans, kings and presidents, dictators and ambassadors engaged in our defense/A lifetime of great service, of selfless good intent guaranteed immunity ‘behind a wall and not a fence’.” On the instrumental break, slip-stitch rhythm guitar jousts and parries with an acrid lead guitar that stings as it swings.
Meanwhile, the melody of “Bones Of Saints” blurs the lines between American Rockabilly and Algerian Rai. A stutter backbeat and gamboling guitar dance around trenchant observations like “To ask a leading question from where the money comes?/Who buys the bullets? Who sells the guns?” As he slips in this sly exegesis on senseless gun violence, the tune downshifts on the bridge and his vocals lock into a patented Golden God wail that underscores his frustration.
Nearly 50 years ago, Robert Plant expected the ladies to “squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg.” These days his love language is a little more refined. On “Season’s Song,” he is particularly tender. Rustling percussion connects with plangent acoustic guitar, as he proclaims “Oh my love, when all is said and done I hear the sound of heaven in your wondrous season’s song.”
“Dance With You Tonight” is a poignant love letter to his bygone Zeppelin days and the fans that flamed the fire. Liquid arpeggios circle a hip-sway beat that feels positively Intime. He seems to address Page and Jones as he notes “We shared a world forever changing through dancing days and wondrous nights/I offered up the secret places, reveal a magic of the land, all bound by blood and lipstick traces ‘til time conspired to steal our crown.”
On the piano-driven “A Way With Words,” this self-confessed Black Country brooder seems to reach out to a former love. Anchored by a stuttery bendir beat and whispery keys, it’s tempting to assume he’s addressing a certain raven-haired, Texas-based singer-songwriter with contrite mea culpas like “All we built is falling down, all we knew has hit the ground I know/Blame the tears, the lonesome sound, hopes and fears that burned the ground I know.”
The album’s best songs are “Carry Fire” and “Keep It Hid.” The title track is a modal masterpiece. It opens with an extended Taxim that weaves a tapestry of loud, electric and acoustic guitar, dobro and pedal steel over tensile percussion. As the arrangement gathers steam, Robert’s vocals are lithe and elastic, bending notes and shading the instrumentation. Murmuring one second and davening the next, he bares his soul and takes an oath of fealty, offering emotional reparations for past transgressions. “I’m reaching out for you across the broken days/All through the gathering years beyond these lonely ways, I carry fire for you.”
“Keep It Hid” is the album’s biggest surprise, taking a hard left turn away from his Sub-Saharan influences, veering toward a Beatnik Bossa Nova/Acid Jazz style popularized by Italian producer/arranger Nicola Conte. Fluttery electronic percussion and flinty electric guitar add ballast to this gossamer groover. No longer the penitent reprobate, the lyrics flip the script and he embraces his carnal conquistador reputation.
The album closes with the one-two punch of “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” and “Heaven Sent.” The former drastically recasts the Rockabilly standard, (written by Ersel Hickey and popularized By Ritchie Valens and the Beach Boys), as a duet with Chrissie Hynde. A stroppy, static-y rhythm and see-saw violins gives the tune a jittery, caffeinated edge. Meanwhile, Chrissie and Robert quaver and curl their lips, each offering up their best King Of Rock N’ Roll Presley pastiche.
Finally, the latter is a sprawling ballad that is equal parts philosophical and ecclesiastic. Shuddery keys cast a spell over a somnolent melody. The lyrics impart this piece of hard won wisdom; “All that’s worth doing is seldom easy done, all that’s worth the winning is never easy won.”
With the exception of “Bluebirds…” each song here was co-written with the Sensational Space Shifters. The five-piece includes John Baggott on keys, Moog, loops, drums brass arrangement, T’Bal, snare drum, slide guitar, piano, electric piano and bendir. Billy Fuller tackles bass, keys and drum programming. Justin Adams plays acoustic guitar, Oud, E-Bow quartet, percussion, snare drum and tambourine. Dave Smith handles Bendir, tambourine, djembe and drum kit. Finally, Liam “Skin” Tyson adds dobro, acoustic guitar, pedal steel and 12 string guitar.
On the cusp of 70, no one would fault Robert Plant if he wanted to retire, spending his golden (God) years enjoying the English countryside, cheering his favorite football clubs and pulling pints in local pubs. In fact, following his last record, he hinted that he may be at the end of the “musical wanderlust and the wonderful carousel” he’s been on.
He’s definitely lived life to the fullest, from the hedonistic highs to soul-crushing Lows. On “The May Queen,” he confides that he’s still “seeking love and glory, just like I always do.” Conversely, he also speaks of “the dimming of my light.” But he needn’t worry, that flame isn’t even close to extinguishing. Carry Fire is the most fully realized album of his solo career. Rather than bask in the afterglow, it feels like Robert Plant shows no signs of slowing down.