Music News & Reviews

Robert Plant once scared parents. Now a sage 69, his music still has Zeppelin ‘Fire’

Throughout the 1970s with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was the poster child for the kind of rock ’n’ roll that scared the daylights out of parents — a sound fortified by a heavy blues drive that seemed to go hand in hand with the most hedonistic stereotypes the music represented. On the cover to his 11th and newest solo album, “Carry Fire,” Plant, now just shy of 70, looks like a battered and aged survivor of that era. But don’t let appearances fool you. He may sing a different tune these days and maintain a more sagely guise, but Plant is as fervent in his current world-pop mash-up as he was with the pile-driver blues and boogie of the Zeppelin years.

“Carry Fire,” which comes out Friday, picks up where 2014’s “Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar” left off. His band remains the Sensational Space Shifters, which continues to recalibrate the blues references so prevalent during Zeppelin’s heyday with folk accents that touch on Celtic, Indian and West African inspirations. What that becomes on “Carry Fire” is music with a largely incantatory feel. Many songs have an elemental foundation not unlike some of U2’s mid 1980s records. But the most striking difference between “Carry Fire” and vintage Zeppelin is Plant’s singing, which seldom strays above a meditative whisper.

... the most striking difference between “Carry Fire” and vintage Zeppelin is Plant’s singing, which seldom strays above a meditative whisper.

Music Critic Walter Tunis

Zeppelin diehards may not immediately relate to the hushed vocals on the album-opening “The May Queen,” a ghostly pastiche of shadowy imagery underscored by chant-like pacing. But they will certainly recognize a detonation of acoustic guitar and drums that recalls 1970’s “Led Zeppelin III.” But that’s as nostalgic as the album gets.

“Carving Up the World Again ... a Wall and Not a Fence” jolts us into the here and now with a view of worldwide nationalism (“Call up the cavalry and double up the guards”) that takes it cue from the more hopeful “New World” two songs earlier, which balances themes of immigration and liberation. Both are wondrously textured — the earlier tune with a thick, percussive chatter; the latter with a guitar-laden finale that sounds like a “Houses of the Holy” outtake remixed at half-speed.

“Carry Fire” has its playful moments, as well. The title tune surrenders to the East with a beguiling dance rhythm and a psychedelic wash that makes the blend sound as trippy as it does worldly. Then, on the album’s biggest surprise, a cover of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” Plant duets with Chrissie Hynde over a slow, progressive dance grind, tossing the tune’s country ancestry into a psychedelic blender that summons torrents of fuzzed-out guitar and percussion.

At the end of the tune, you hear Plant awaken, just for a moment, the beastly bravado of his younger self. It’s nice to know the Zeppelin persona still lurks somewhere in the rearview mirror of a musical vision in which the sights are firmly set on global exploration.