Robert Plant’s new ‘Carry Fire’ keeps his focus fully forward
Robert Plant insists he hasn’t devoted his life to music for the money or the awards.
So it’s with a detached sense of humor that the celebrated singer and songwriter remembers being overlooked by the Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards for his critically acclaimed 2014 album, “Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar,” his first with his band of international master musicians, the Sensational Space Shifters.
After all, his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand,” took the top Grammy prize, album of the year. “It’s not really an issue,” Plant, 69, said last week from a holiday he was taking in Oxfordshire in the English countryside.
“They said, ‘We couldn’t put them in any category: It’s not Americana. It’s not rock. What the hell is it?’ My response was, ‘Why don’t you make a category for people who do what the [hell] they like?’”
That, in a nutshell, is what Plant has done throughout his career, and it’s a philosophy evident on the similarly uncategorizable “Carry Fire,” his latest solo album, and another collaboration with the Space Shifters.
The album expands the borderless approach taken on “Lullaby,” which melded the British artist’s love of deep blues from the American South with elements of Arabic, African and English folk music.
There’s a key difference, however, with the presence this time out of English fiddle and viola player Seth Lakeman, who lends a yearning, sometimes mournful character to the songs on which he’s featured.
As on “Lullaby,” Plant writes the lyrics and composes the bulk of the music with Space Shifters keyboardist John Baggott, guitarist Justin Adams, bassist Billy Fuller, drummer Dave Smith and guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson.
Another noticeable variation: Plant throughout shifts his primary focus as a lyricist from eternal matters of the heart — or explorations of mythical locations and practices — to contemporary politics.
In “New World,” he addresses the age-old idea of cultural imperialism with up-to-the minute relevance as he sings, “with songs of praise … a happy landing…. on yet another virgin shore / Escape the Old World… embrace the New World / Out here the immigrant takes all.”
And in “Carving Up the World,” he notes, “the Russians, the Americans, the British and the French / They’re carving up the world again, it’s getting kind of tense / A whole lotta posture and very little sense / It’s no surprise they hide behind a wall and not a fence.”
Asked whether this suggests an intrusion of the real world into his thinking, Plant replied, “Yep. Everybody knows it, and everybody’s powerless. You’ve got your monster, we’ve got ours too. They’re everywhere. They’re stomping through the Earth, spitting brimstone and residue.”
Yet does he believe music has the power to effect change, or at least spark dialogue?
“I think Eminem is pretty strident,” Plant said, referencing the artist’s vicious, profanity-laced rap that targeted Donald Trump and ran during the 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards.
“Isn’t it amazing? It takes a guy who you would say, in an overview of music, might be considered ‘controversial,’ but he kind of actually nailed it.”
Plant, however, still skews toward taking the longer view of human history, and with his music, he tries to tap something more lasting than the headlines of the day.
It’s why he’s kept his partnership with the Sensational Space Shifters, which sprouted from the seeds he planted more than a decade ago when he assembled the Strange Sensation for the album “Mighty ReArranger.”
“To be honest, I think there’s a kind of a groove and essence we really developed on ‘Mighty ReArranger’… and we had this thing going on with grooves, in songs like ‘Shining It All Around’ and ‘Tin Pan Valley.’ We were a real powerful unit, a cooperative with absolutely no concern as to whether or not it was the right thing to be doing, because it was what had to be done.”
Known for the otherworldly rock bellow he perfected while fronting Led Zeppelin in the late 1960s and 1970s, Plant nowadays often exercises the nuances and subtleties of his still pliant voice.
In the new album’s “Bones and Saints,” he delivers filigreed inflections akin to the way Islamic muezzins call the devoted to prayer each day.
“Actually, I don’t know whether that wasn’t a part of ‘The Battle of Evermore,’” he said, referring to the beloved track from “Led Zeppelin IV.”
I’ve always been interested in the way a song disappears down the hall into silence….
“I knew I was doing something at the end of the song. I’ve always been interested in the way a song disappears down the hall into silence…. If I’m captivated by a song, I want to know how the singer is going to take it through to the last part of the groove.
“So yes, I can sing those trick things,” said Plant, whose 2018 U.S. tour with the Space Shifters opens Feb. 9 in Raleigh, N.C., and brings him to the Orpheum Theatre in L.A. on March 2. “They add more drama to the whole thing. They make my point more effective.”
One point it’s hard to imagine him making any more effectively than he has for the last decade is his lack of interest in Zeppelin reunions. He’s consistently, but generally respectfully, rebuffed questions about reconvening with the celebrated band’s other surviving original members, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones.
Rumors of a Led Zeppelin reunion still routinely pop up.
“It’s tough enough repeating yourself with something that’s a year old, never mind 49 years old,” he told the Daily Telegraph in England recently. “I’ve got to keep moving.”
Besides, he and the Space Shifters have periodically tossed a bone to the hardcore fans with radically reworked arrangements of Zep staples including “Black Dog,” “Rock & Roll,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and even “Whole Lotta Love.”
Lately, however, he’s started trying a different tack when the reunion question comes up.
“My new one,” he said, “is I pretend the phone’s gone dead: ‘I’m sorry, there must be sun spots.’ Or ‘I believe they’re doing a senior citizens deal for you at Denny’s.’”
Spoken like someone with little concern for collecting awards.
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