Robert Plant has been enjoying a late career renaissance since 2007’s excellent Raising Sand collaboration with country/bluegrass singer Alison Krauss.
Carry Fire, his 11th solo studio album, sees the Led Zeppelin frontman backed once again by The Sensational Space Shifters – a quartet of multi-instrumentalists – who clearly share his enthusiasm for finding new approaches to music.
Produced by Plant himself, the album covers similar territory to predecessor Lullaby and …, The Ceaseless Roar, but feels like a stronger more complete collection.
Appalachian-influenced opener The May Queen sets the somewhat reflective tone of the album, droning acoustics and rootsy violin accompanying Plant’s unsentimental musing on the “dimming of my light”.
It’s a theme he returns to time and again, particularly on the dramatic title track and the haunting, elegiac album closer Heaven Sent.
They are very different artists, but Carry Fire reminds me of PJ Harvey‘s last two releases, in its use of unusual instrumentation and dynamics to create a world of its own.
The Space Shifters – John Baggott, Justin Adams, Dave Smith and Liam “Skin” Tyson – blend electronics, loops and programming with more exotic apparatus – t’bal, oud, bendir and E-bow – to magnificent effect.
While Seth Lakeman, who joined the band for their recent live show, contributes his not inconsiderable skills on fiddle and viola to three tracks.
For his part, Plant has clearly learned a thing or two about production over the years, creating an album that’s positively brimming with atmospherics.
Besides the Eastern rhythms of the title track, there are jarring stabs of electronica on Keep It Hid and beautiful subtle strings on A Way With Words.
Plant gets political on the anti-colonialist Americana of New World and the biting satire of Carving Up The World Again.
“The Russians, the Americans, the British and their friends/They’re carving up the world again,” Plant rages. “A whole lot of posture and very little sense/It’s no surprise they hide behind a wall and not a fence.”
His voice, stripped of the high pitched bombast of old, is no less powerful for the hint of world weariness and vulnerability it now carries.
And the ‘golden god’ proves he can still rock out with the best of them on heavier tracks like Bodies of Saints and the Chrissie Hynde duet Bluebirds Over The Mountain – a smart re-working of the Ersel Hickey original.
While many of his contemporaries have either gone to seed, or contented themselves with lesser re-treads of past glories, Plant continues to tap a rich vein of stylistic reinvention.
He may fear the “dimming of the light” but Carry Fire shows that in his 69th year, Robert Plant remains as relevant as he’s ever been.
- Carry Fire by Robert Plant is out now through Nonesuch Records