x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Led Zep frontman Robert Plant impresses on new album Carry Fire

Carry Fire, Plant’s 11th solo album, which is released today, is his second with his able backing band The Sensational Space Shifters

Robert Plant performing last month in Tennessee with his band The Sensational Space Shifters, who join him on his 11th solo album and their second in collaboration. Wade Payne / Invision / AP File
Robert Plant performing last month in Tennessee with his band The Sensational Space Shifters, who join him on his 11th solo album and their second in collaboration. Wade Payne / Invision / AP File

On December 10, 2007, after Led Zeppelin had reformed for one-night-only to play the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert, Robert Plant escaped to the back room of a fairly humble Turkish eatery near his home in Chalk Farm, North London.

“The rarefied air backstage at the O2 [Arena] was something you could only savour for moments,” the singer later told journalist Paul Rees. And so Plant, normally a gregarious beast, had opted to eat hummus alone at the Marathon Bar, thus avoiding the O2 after-show party where celebrities asked Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham, son of Zeppelin’s late drummer John Bonham: “Surely you’re going to do this again?”

Famously, Plant’s unwillingness to pursue a Led Zeppelin reunion any further was a source of great consternation to his old bandmate Page. But Plant had just released Raising Sand, his much-lauded duets album with American country singer Alison Krauss.

Ten years on, Page and Plant’s stances haven’t changed. Plant continues to look forward, while Page, seemingly only busying himself with the restoration and lionisation of Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, continues to look back.

Carry Fire, Plant’s 11th solo album, which is released on October 13, is his second with his able backing band The Sensational Space Shifters. With its Moog synthesiser, Arabic and African tropes, and its blues, folk and electronica elements, the record is exactly the kind of cross-cultural smorgasbord Plant watchers have come to expect.

Building on certain stylistic adjustments that were already apparent on 2012’s Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, it also sees the singer, now pushing 70, dial down the testosterone, while retaining his edge.

Though Plant’s voice still has impressive power on the record’s most Zeppelin-esque track Bones 0f Saints, elsewhere, his warm, husky vocals often pack deliberate vulnerability and a searching new intimacy.

With its smouldering reds, meanwhile, the album cover’s painted portrait of the unselfconsciously weathered-looking singer has a certain gravitas, and one reviewer has already characterised Carry Fire as a collection of “lion-in-winter love songs”.

There is certainly a sense of a man pausing to reflect on his life; of an old campaigner registering changes outwith his control.

It is only within song, moreover, that Plant tends to do this. Not for him the tell-all autobiography that many would love to read.

“Almost every other rock star but you has written a memoir,” noted Rolling Stone magazine last month. “Would you?”

“Never”, replied Plant. “What I know between my ears here is priceless. It’s magnificent, sometimes tearful, but mostly cheerful. There have been highs and lows and a lot of adventure, and I keep it hid.”

Consciously or otherwise, Plant was name-checking the song Keep It Hid, an unsettling electronic blues on Carry Fire wherein he makes cryptic reference to “a silver key in a golden cup”. Other songs on his new album are easier to interpret.

On Season’s Song, where Plant clearly mourns the passing of the years, there is talk of “our summer’s slow farewell”, while Dance with You Tonight begins “And now the carnival is over”, and later references “Sweet dancing days and wondrous nights… ’til time conspired to steal our crown”.

The significance of the latter lines won’t be lost on fans of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album Houses of the Holy, which contains their song Dancing Days, but if Plant is reflecting on the end of Led Zeppelin’s reign, it is from a distance now. Quizzed by Rolling Stone about the 2016 court case which saw he, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones successfully contest claims that Page had ripped-off the opening chords of Stairway to Heaven, Plant characterised he and his former bandmates current relationship as “a cup of coffee from time to time, but nothing intimate”.

The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who duets with Plant on his new album’s propulsive cover version of Ersel Hickey’s 1968 hit Bluebirds over the Mountain, makes for a perfect, wholly simpatico guest. Like Plant, Hynde is a wily individual who has never been one for career comprises, and like Plant, she remains something of a lone wolf, in love with romance, but not necessarily commitment.

Whether with English folk great Sandy Denny on Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore, or with the aforementioned Krauss, duetting with female singers has long been a source of inspiration for Plant.

But as he documented on Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, songs such as Embrace Another Fall, Plant’s professional and romantic relationship with American folk singer Patty Griffin was to end in tears.

The pair had set up home together in Austin, Texas, after collaborating on Plant’s 2010 album Band Of Joy, but “culturally and slightly spiritually” Plant began to experience a troubling disjunct which led him to “swing the wheel right around”.

“Patty and I tried a sort of zigzag across the Atlantic,” Plant told me when I interviewed him in 2014, “but she didn’t share my penchant for cider and she used to marvel at the Black Country character I became after four pints of Thatchers. My feelings are very much ones of sadness and regret, but I also disturbed myself. I had to come back [to Worcestershire, England] to find out just how much I valued what I’d left behind – it’s an old song, I guess.”

Plant’s love of Arabic and African musical forms is well to the fore on Carry Fire, an album that also explores themes such as nationalism, colonialism and the building of border walls. In Justin Adams, noted world-music connoisseur and sometime producer of revered African desert rockers Tinariwen, Plant has his greatest guitar foil since Page, while masterful Albanian cellist Redi Hassa joins the singer on another of the album’s stand-outs, A Way with Words.

Though Plant is undoubtedly hugely proud of his work with Led Zeppelin, the singer has long been subject to a complex meld of emotions when considering his former band.

“In the early part of my time in Zeppelin, I wrote naively, but I loved all that mystery of the dark past and the Queen Of Light,” Plant told me in 2014. “Unfortunately I had [that light and naivety] taken away from me bit by bit.”

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It wasn’t clear to me whether Plant was referring to the dark side of the Led Zeppelin story, as told in books such as Barney Hoskyns’ Trampled Underfoot, or to the unimaginable tragedy of his 5-year-old son Karac dying of a viral infection during Led Zeppelin’s 1977 North American Tour, but I immediately had a greater understanding of why Plant has been content to let Zeppelin lie since the death of his friend John Bonham, the band’s formidable drummer, in 1980.

Some 40 years on, Plant does indeed carry fire. The fire of hurt, the fire of hard-won life wisdom and the fire of ongoing musical inspiration. Carry Fire is an impressive return. Forward-looking and vital-sounding, it proves a rock star’s passionate adjustment to his or her twilight years needn’t involve going down the crooning Great American Songbook route á la Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan.