Unlike his contemporaries – one imagines a man with his back catalogue has few peers – Robert Plant refuses to crank out soundalikes of his prime. Like 2014’s “Lullaby…And The Ceaseless Roar, Plant shows off his inherent gift for melody and tenderness, aided by tremendous backing band The Sensational Space Shifters (it’s far from a backhanded compliment to say this may be the second best group he’s ever sung in front of). A patchwork quilt of styles form a beautiful whole, as djembe, e-bows and Texas tunings swirl, hurricane or drift along on a collection of soaring, stomping, or just sumptuous songs that you wouldn’t expect from a man on the cusp of his seventies.
Opening with the propulsive The May Queen – a character last referenced in a certain monolithic rock classic of yesteryear – from the off the album sees Plant setting his stall out. “Out here the fire’s still burning/ So long into my night”, he sings, the leonine yowl of forty-plus years ago replaced with a tender delivery that still commands your attention. At 69, he’s several decades removed from the Golden God of yore, but you’re drawn in as he seeks to ignore all that and instead explore a soundscape far removed from the supposed glory days of racing motorbikes around the Chateau Marmont. The song that stresses his single-mindedness most is stealth highlight A Way With Words, a tender, plaintive piece featuring Plant, a piano and some padded drums, a song so intimately delivered that the addition of breathy harmonies and barely-there synth strings suddenly feels widescreen. Yet that’s not he can’t still bring the ruckus: tracks like Bones Of Saints stomp like the levee is about to break again.
Of course, being from an artist of a certain age who has spotted the undiscovered country on the horizon, the songs here thematically touch on the curtain call and the legacy one leaves; “A whole lotta posture and very little sense/It’s no surprise they hide behind a wall and not a fence” he tuts on Carving Up The World Again. This might all sound melancholy, but it’s instead just wonderful. Indeed, when the only real concession to modernisation comes with the Reznor-esque production on a cover of the Ersel Hickey rockabilly tune Bluebirds Over The Mountain (a track Chrissy Hynde duets on), you know you’re in the company of someone confident in their own ways.
Robert Plant’s Carry Fire was released on 13th October by Nonesuch Records.