Robert Plant - Carry Fire

by Kyle Kersey Rating:6 Release Date:2017-10-13
Robert Plant - Carry Fire
Robert Plant - Carry Fire

When I was a kid, Led Zeppelin truly was the hammer of the gods. There was no debate in the Kersey household: the best rock 'n’ roll band to ever walk the earth was Led Zeppelin. Period. They were almost mythical, a legend in the stature of Gilgamesh. Rock’s true epic. Seeing their elongated musical montage titled The Song Remains the Same only strengthened my vision of the group as immortal musical necromancers, catching lightning in a bottle before vanishing into the ether after only 12 short years, never to return again.

Or so we thought.

Ten years ago this December, Led Zeppelin returned. There had been a few reunion attempts in the past, all of which were contrived messes in their own right. Their Live-Aid set is practically infamous for its shortcomings and use of Phil Collins as a second drummer. But with Jason Bonham filling in for his father on drums and giving the performance of a lifetime, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant recaptured that lightning in a bottle once more. The show, a tribute to the late Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, caused ticket servers to shut down, overrun by the twenty million fans hoping to attend the historic event. With demand inconceivably high, Page, Jones, and Bonham were on board for a tour, an untold fortune inevitably awaiting them...

Just one little snag: Robert Plant was busy.

Lest we forget that ten years ago this month, Plant was releasing a collaborative album with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett titled Raising Sand; an album that would go on to win Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards. An album he was quite proud of and, subsequently, wanted to support on tour. Since then, two more solo albums have come to fruition. Band of Holy Joy played as a testament to deep, muddy, blues rock, while Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar, Plant’s first solo effort featuring his backing group the Sensational Space Shifters, furthered his musical exploration of folk to include a wider range of cultures.

Now we have Carry Fire, Plant's eleventh solo album since Zeppelin ceased production and second with the Sensational Space Shifters. Plant channels a lifetime of thoughts and ideas throughout Carry Fire, over wistful vocal harmonies and seasonal imagery. It’s an album that feels reflective of Plant’s recent migration from Austin, Texas to the misty mountains of Wales, a transition most recognizable through Plant’s changing melodic influences, from American bluegrass to a more Celtic shade of folk.

Opening the album is “The May Queen,” where Plant celebrates the joy and optimism of a new year over folksy guitars and deeply atmospheric production. There’s a running theme of lovers bidding farewell on Carry Fire, as well as a motif of seasonal imagery to represent the changing of society with age, both represented on  “Season’s Song". Plant’s clearly a romantic, sometimes bordering on sappy with tracks like “Dance with You Tonight." For the first few tracks, this is basically what you’re getting; Plant’s soft vocals supported with lovely acoustic guitar swells and African influenced drum patterns.

Regrettably, Plant commits lyrical seppuku about halfway through the album on “Carving Up the World Again...A Wall and Not a Fence”; a track cluttered with an odd reference to Donald Trump’s  proposed border wall and stagnant rockabilly verses about the dominant world powers carving up the world for themselves. To be fair, there is a slight political undertone throughout the album, most noticeably on “New World...” which jabs at the misguided European perspective of conquering indigenous areas. Later on, “Bones of Saints” has a similar historical perspective, but these songs are steeped in Plant’s love of literature. It’s jarring to have the tone go from schmaltzy prose to surface-level banality. Oddly enough, “Carving Up the World Again...A Wall and Not a Fence” is the only time where the tone abruptly shifts like this, making it stick out like a sore thumb in the track listing.

“A Way With Words” signals the return to romanticism; a tender ballad, swelling like the Welsh fields during a rainfall into a beautiful orchestra crescendo. Meanwhile, the title track “Carry Fire” emphasizes eastern influences through the use of sitar, showing shades of a psychedelic George Harrison. What Robert Plant does best on Carry Fire – or as an artist in general – is bring to life vivid scenes of immaculate beauty with the stroke of a pen. In fact, the official video for the single “Bluebirds over the Mountain” is a visual journey across various oil paintings as seen through the eyes of a child riding the back of a bluebird. Guest vocalist Chrissie Hynde's bluesy contribution acts as the perfect foil to Plant's smoky vocals.

Context is key here. In most other cases, his overwhelming sentimentality would receive my scorn, but my cynical heart is warmed by his romantic idealism. Part of this is because of who Robert Plant is as an icon. If Gene Simmons is modern rock’s embarrassing uncle rambling at Thanksgiving dinner about those damn kids corrupting his nephew’s soul, then Robert Plant is the kindly old patriarch – a grandfather figure that charms you with his homey wisdom. But I think what separates him from many of his contemporaries is his strong sense of respect for the diverse cultures and sounds he's embraced over his career. It’s something that was evident during the Led Zeppelin reunion concert, whereupon Plant would relay the history of early blues and rock between songs like the coolest college professor in existence.

It's Plant's sense of wide-eyed optimism that defines his modern approach to musical exploration, a desire to keep discovering new sounds and historical perspectives. I think he says it best on Austin City Limits: “I can’t stand tedium and repetition. They say glory is fleeting and obscurity is forever, and that’s fine...But I don’t want to be bored.”

Carry Fire lacks many of the superlatives I look for in a new release. The production is a bit glossy for my taste, sometimes even overly spacey. It also lacks a bit of energy or bite in the music, and Plant’s lyrical output is extremely sentimental for a majority of the tracks. But I can’t help smiling during it all. Sure, Carry Fire doesn’t capture that same lightning in a bottle that Led Zeppelin did, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think he ever will again. Maybe nobody ever will. And that’s fine. I’ve come to like that he isn’t chasing the sounds of his past glory days. That’s how we get albums like Rock N’ Roll Train by AC/DC and Megadeth’s Dystopia. The fact that Plant is still sonically experimenting with diverse musicians and sounds says more about him as an artist than any Led Zeppelin release. I may not exactly love Carry Fire, but I respect the hell out of it. 

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    The lack of activity by the band in the wake of that brilliant performance ten years back has always seemed a damned shame to me. What could have been. Great write-up Kyle!

  • Thanks! Yeah, and I think it was a missed opportunity to introduce this sound to my generation; a generation that has gone down the Sabbath path more so than the Zeppelin route. But I understand that Plant wants to continue producing new and interesting music on his own.

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    I remember Fate of Nations coming out in '93 and loving it. There's a magic when Plant is with the right musicians, but finding those can be a tricky business, especially with the legacy that he has. Kevin Scott MacMichael (Cutting Crew) was that kind of individualistic talent to make it work.