As much as anyone, Robert Plant deserves credit — or blame — for bringing the adjective "histrionic" into the vocabulary about rock music. As the frontman for Led Zeppelin, Plant used his pliant voice to create a signature vocal style, hitting melodic heights that defied gender while exploring expansive and exotic themes as part of the group's mythologically based, sensually infused musical journeys.
If Helen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships, Plant's work on "Immigrant Song," "Whole Lotta Love" and, inevitably, "Stairway to Heaven" surely launched 10,000 hard rock and heavy metal singers, the vast majority of whom vainly attempted to emulate him.
Nearly a half-century down the line, however, Plant, at 66, is far more concerned with nuance and subtlety than in the explosive and orgasmic eruptions that were once his stock in trade.
"The thing is, there's a lot of detail in what's going on with the Sensational Space Shifters," Plant said of his latest band, speaking from his home in western England, late on a day when he was anticipating a night out at his local pub to celebrate the 6th birthday of his dog, a lurcher named Arthur. "For me to create any kind of performance of virtuoso singing, it would probably get a little too busy. I figure if I have something to say, I should work it into the landscape of the music."
It's a compellingly eclectic landscape he has created on "lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar," the album he's releasing Tuesday with the Space Shifters, an international polyglot consisting of Gambian ritti virtuoso Juldeh Camara, English guitarist Justin Adams, keyboardist-programmer John Baggot (of Massive Attack) and bassist Billy Fuller (Fuzz Against Junk, Beak), Loop Collective drummer Dave Smith and guitarist Liam "Skin" Tyson from British pop band Cast. The band's U.S. tour opens this month and includes an Oct. 7 stop at the Hollywood Palladium.
The album picks up where Plant left off in the recording studio after his Grammy-winning pairing with bluegrass/country queen Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand," and its follow-up, "Band of Joy," on which he teamed with American roots music guitarist, producer and songwriter Buddy Miller and singer Patty Griffin.
Where those outings delved deep into the body of American blues, country, folk and gospel music, Plant pushes the parameters outward by adding generous doses of Celtic-influenced sounds and polyrhythmic excursions from the musical traditions of western and northern Africa.
The album is framed with radically different renditions of the old bluegrass song "Little Maggie," popularized in a 1948 recording by the Stanley Brothers but which Plant latched onto through a moaning performance by Roscoe Holcomb, the Kentucky banjo player and singer who inspired use of the term "high, lonesome sound" to describe the essence of bluegrass singing.
"Bluegrass aficionados will ask, 'Is that any good?' But I don't care — it's all about the mélange," Plant said. "Maggie goes to Bristol and she's got a passport and she can go to Africa along the way."
Camara playing the banjo-like ritti helps make the connection with the song's bluegrass origins, and the rest of the band stretches, bends and morphs its melody, harmonies and rhythm into something far more global-minded. Camara takes it even further afield in the album-closing reprise by singing it in his native Fulani language before handing the vocal back to Plant.
Plant has long been seeking common threads between the styles of music that fired his childhood imagination, an inquiring nature that played out in the biggest way imaginable when he, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham made Led Zeppelin one of the two or three biggest rock bands in the world in the 1970s.
After Zeppelin's run riding the crest of rock's ocean ended following the death of Bonham in 1980, Plant was drawn to various like-minded musicians, including the Honeydrippers, the Priory of Brian and Strange Sensation, some of whose members are back with him in the Space Shifters.
It was his connection with Krauss that captured the attention of a broad audience once again, with "Raising Sand" taking the album of the year award at the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony. That journey continued after Krauss returned to the fold of her longtime band, Union Station, and Plant teamed with Buddy Miller for a new incarnation of the Band of Joy, a group name he'd used in the days before Led Zeppelin surfaced. Then, last year, he put the Space Shifters together, reinventing much of the rootsy material he'd been singing recently along with Zeppelin nuggets.
"I was so blown away by the kind of energy and angular music we were creating," he said, "I forgot that what we were doing were songs from the past.... To be honest, I didn't realize I hadn't written a song for 10 years.
"We'd already crafted a good signature sound," he said, "and through this whole adventure together, the personality of the music was pretty strong and powerful. It was time to get to work [on lyrics]. It was a very easy and rewarding and fast process."
Leaping back into the realm of lyric writing he'd largely handled with Zeppelin, Plant said the new songs largely started out of riffs and melodies he and the other Space Shifters cooked up, which they used as the springboard to explore impressions about different cultures he's immersed himself in over the last 50 years.
That yielded lyrics — some highly impressionistic, some crafted in more linear fashion — that embrace the joy of discovery and the ability of music to create connection across cultural divides ("Turn It Up"), others giving voice to new realizations about facets of his home and the world he was raised in ("Somebody There")."Up on the Hill (Understanding Arthur)," he said, was inspired by Europe's long history of monarchies and a legacy that has left "so many people still waiting for another Arthur, a leader who will set everything right."
And along the way, he benefited from the inspiration of another Arthur, his dog.
"The songs started mostly from grooves," he said. "I'd work on them and work and work, and then I'd give myself a reward by taking Arthur to the pub. But I wouldn't go until I'd gotten something going that was far out there and recorded it. Thank God, the juices have started to flow again."
Toward what end?
"The shared moment in music where people are all on the same page — it's the only place to be," Plant said. "I think the last however many years of my singing, where I've been in very, very good company, there's been an element of charm and kindness and exploration. That keeps me from thinking there's nothing left to do."