Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
I’m almost certain that if you were to ask Robert Plant to name his favorite Led Zeppelin album, his answer would either be the band’s third self-titled record or 1975’s Physical Graffiti. In so many ways throughout his musical life following the demise of that seminal group, those two records — the first informed by a rustic retreat to a sparse cottage in the Welsh countryside, the latter, a sprawling double-album, fueled by Arabic melodies, bluesy digressions, and post-modern production techniques — have remained the sine qua non that has informed almost everything he’s done as a solo artist. That remains true for his latest creation Carry Fire as well.
Plant’s creative run over the last several decades has been frankly incredible. Operating under a gigantic, blimp-shaped shadow, he’s pieced together a catalog of music nearly unmatched by anyone from his peer group. This isn’t just a late-career renaissance either. Following a string of throat-clearingly banal solo records in the 1980s, Pictures At Eleven, The Principles Of The Moment, and Shaken ‘N’ Stirred, Plant finally found his footing at the beginning of the next decade with the dynamic and compelling Manic Nirvana. Since then, it’s been a nearly uninterrupted run of platinum records, award show trophies, and critical plaudits.
Generally speaking, there are two different modes that Plant typically swings between as he pieces together new projects. He either looks outward across the world and wonders at distant places and their unfamiliar sounds, something he accomplished with great aplomb on projects like Fate Of Nations in 1993 and Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar in 2014, or he likes to look backward through time, and relish in earlier, simpler forms of folk and blues music like on Band Of Joy in 2010, or his 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, the Grammy-winning Raising Sand. On Carry Fire he manages to bridge the viewfinder to spectacular result.
In so many ways, you would never guess that the man you hear singing on Carry Fire is the same shrieking banshee who blew out more than a few speakers during his life on classics like “Immigrant Song” or “Whole Lotta Love.” For most of the record, he croons away with this breathy, near-falsetto. Those hoping for something more dynamic would be wise to consult earlier albums. He’s just not that guy anymore, and more power to him for recognizing that fact and leaning into it. As much as a Zeppelin freaks — myself included — hope, wish and pray that Plant would give Page and John Paul Jones a ring and get the band together again, he innately understands what so many refuse to accept. What’s more he uses his modern day instrument to stunning effect, lending each and every track on the record a certain sense of grace and gravitas.
That’s not to say that Carry Fire is devoid of energy, it just operates on a different wavelength. The duet with Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” is a prime example. What was originally a jaunty, 1957 hit for Esel Hickey, has been repurposed here as an almost industrial, psychedelic tapestry of sound and attitude. The last song on the album “Heaven Sent” simmers with an ominous intensity; a bubbling witches brew of vibrato-drenched guitars, and steady, electronic fizzing. “Dance With You” is probably my favorite song on the record, a track fleshed out by a wall of vocal harmonies and saturated backward echo. The approaches are as rangy, manic and diverse as the man piecing them all together.
Lyrically, Carry Fire stacks up alongside some of the best albums of Plant’s long career. The emotions explored are universal — love, anxiety, fear, desire — and are driven home with image-filled wordplay and touching depths of empathy. The most surprising thing for me to discover was the ways in which he interacts with the world as it exists today. Plant apparently has carefully observed the forces that caused the Brexit, as well as the words of Donald Trump and he’s no fan. On “Carving Up The World,” he doesn’t mince words. “It’s no surprise they hide behind a wall and not a fence.”