Robert Plant

Carry Fire

Classic Rock - - THE HARD STUFF ALBUMS -

Eleventh solo al­bum with the Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters, fea­tur­ing a duet with Chrissie Hynde.

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 dis­creet fi­bres of elec­tron­ica, this al­bum rep­re­sents a higher cre­ative point than, say, his some­what poo­dle-haired solo work of the early 1980s.

Carry Fire once more fea­tures the Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters, whose slightly cheery moniker be­lies their ex­cel­lence. Their in­stru­men­tal con­tri­bu­tion is worth list­ing in full as it con­veys not just the cred­its but the flavours of the al­bum’s bill of fare. There’s John Bag­gott (key­boards, Moog, loops, per­cus­sion, drums, brass ar­range­ment, t’bal, snare drum, slide guitar, pi­ano, elec­tric pi­ano, bendir); Justin Adams (guitar, acous­tic guitar, oud, E-bow quar­tet, per­cus­sion, snare drum, tam­bourine); Dave Smith (bendir, tam­bourine, djembe, drum kit); and Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson (do­bro, guitar, acous­tic guitar, pedal steel, twelve-string). Al­ba­nian cel­list Redi Hasa per­forms on three tracks, as does Seth Lake­man on vi­ola and fid­dle.

Their in­ter­play is ev­i­dent im­me­di­ately on The May Queen, in which Moog synth drones, Ara­bic per­cus­sion, rus­set hints of folk and a pal­pa­ble boo­gie pulse mix nat­u­rally, evok­ing a sense of a ma­ture and dis­tilled con­tem­po­rary blend rather than the tired, dated feel that ham­pers the re­leases of other emi­nent 60-some­things.

Most no­tice­able is Plant’s voice. It may be that he sim­ply can’t scale the vo­cal heights of his youth. It’s com­mend­able, how­ever, that he doesn’t merely at­tempt to re­cy­cle the 70s Plant tricks and tropes as a mere ex­er­cise in pre­serv­ing the Robert Plant Brand. His voice has de­vel­oped into some­thing quite dif­fer­ent with age: smoky, in­ti­mate, del­i­cate, han­ker­ing, with none of the epic, blues-ori­en­tated screech­ing that was once his stock-in-trade.

It’s an ap­proach that suits the likes of Sea­son’s Song, one of a num­ber that seem to speak of an old ro­man­tic in­creas­ingly aware of his own mor­tal­ity: ‘My senses have es­caped me/My mind is on the run.’ The ar­range­ment pat­ters dis­creetly like snow on a win­dow pane.

Still, there’s life in the old dog. New World… is an­nounced by a heavy, bil­low­ing guitar in­tro, crash­ing onto a ‘vir­gin shore’. The al­lu­sion to ‘im­mi­grant’ is one of a few frag­men­tary Zep­pelin ref­er­ences that blow back on the winds of these songs, adding to a sense of Plant as a fig­ure etched and weath­ered by great ad­ven­tures from long ago, un­sure how many lie ahead of him. Dance With You Tonight dra­mat­i­cally ex­ac­er­bates that sense, haunted by the back­ward tap­ing on the sound­track.

This, how­ever, is an al­bum rooted in the present day. Carv­ing Up The World Again …A Wall And Not A Fence feels ex­plic­itly geopo­lit­i­cal, with its Na­tive Amer­i­canstyle drum beats. Gui­tars break­ing over the hori­zon are a re­minder that this al­bum isn’t en­tirely an ex­er­cise in con­tem­po­rary fu­sion. Rock cour­ses through it, as is fur­ther ev­i­dent on the rum­bling Bones Of Saints, and Plant’s de­fi­ant re­frain of ‘No, no, no!’

That said, Plant shows a great grasp of mod­ern at­mos­pheres on A Way

With Words, as if such an un­der­stand­ing comes with ex­pe­ri­ence. There’s the evo­ca­tion of even­ing clouds drift­ing, night in­sects gath­er­ing in the warm dusk, mem­o­ries rear­ing – the unique emo­tional in­ten­sity of late mid­dle age. The ti­tle track, mean­while, is prac­ti­cally a sonic tran­scrip­tion of a Mar­rakesh that’s still bustling at sun­set, tra­di­tional in­stru­ments plucked be­neath starry skies of synth.

There’s a sole cover ver­sion – Ersel Hickey’s Blue­birds Over The Moun­tain – which is given a revved-up treat­ment, with a sawn-off riff and per­cus­sive drive fit to rat­tle the re­mains of John Bon­ham. Chrissie Hynde pro­vides guest vo­cals, and it’s a sign of some­thing or other that in 2017 their vo­cals ac­tu­ally sound more sim­i­lar than you might ex­pect, as if to sug­gest that ev­ery­one even­tu­ally ar­rives in the same place.

That is a some­what ro­man­tic idea

– rock has its fair share of strag­glers and ca­su­al­ties. But as for Plant, the truth is that Carry Fire is about as good an al­bum as we could rea­son­ably ex­pect from him in 2017.

‘As good an al­bum as we could ex­pect from Plant in 2017.’

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