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.”
Speaking of lyrics, while Plant seems to have closed the book on the person he was in his twenties, Carry Fire suggests on multiple occasions that he retains a quiet affinity for his old band. Never is that more obvious than on the album opener, titled “The May Queen” which appears to reference the Zeppelin classic “Stairway To Heaven,” and the line in that song, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow / Don’t be alarmed now / It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.”
When he sat down to talk about it with the BBC, he naturally tried to explain the allusion away. “I didn’t even see it like that to begin with,” he said “It’s just there was a big hawthorn bush outside the studio. There were no spring cleans or anything.” Then, in a cheeky reference to his iconic ad-lib during live renditions of the song he asked, “Do you think anybody can remember laughter? I don’t know.” Methinks he doth protest too much.
What Carry Fire signals more than anything else is that Robert Plant is far from done. When I spoke recently to David Crosby, he told me that too often, as you advance through your career in music, there’s a tendency to hit a comfortable autopilot. “It devolves into turn on the smoke machine and play your hits,” he said. Plant has remained the most vital artist of his generation by avoiding that impulse for three decades and counting. There’s no sign he’s about to flip the switch anytime soon.
One of the biggest tours of 1977 was Fleetwood Mac’s live run supporting their monumental new record Rumours. Onstage, and to the crowd, everything seemed relatively copacetic between the members of the band as they poured out their hearts and aired their dirty laundry to thousands of people a night. However, the same tensions that fueled their new music continued to dog the band as they flitted from arena to arena.
“Our success was wonderful but victory came with greater tension between our band members with each passing day,” drummer Mick Fleetwood recalled in his autobiography Play On Now. “There were frequent fights because our art, our business, and our personal lives were all the same, and we lived it out onstage and off, every single night.” The strain took a noticeable toll on Stevie Nicks who pushed herself and her voice relentlessly. “Midway through the tour we decided to bring Stevie’s close friend Robin on the road to look after her,” Fleetwood recalled. “But despite Robin’s presence and all the advice in the world, Stevie could not be tamed when the spirit moved her; she’d tear her instrument to shreds in deference to her songs.”
A prime example is the band’s swing through Japan at the end of the year. The whole band is on-point during this performance — Lindsey Buckingham is an absolute monster on lead guitar — but Nicks really takes the cake with sultry renditions of “Gold Dust Woman” and “Rhiannon.” Incredibly, Fleetwood said in his book that he has about 50 hours worth of footage from their time in Japan that’s he converted digitally and visually re-mastered. Let’s all collectively hope he gifts us with the fruits of that labor sooner, rather than later.