Yes, This is Robert Plant: A New Lullaby
Robert Plant has made a career out of recontextualizing. Evidence of his desire to reframe songs goes back even to the earliest recordings from the late 60s, when he recorded psyched out demos of “Hey Joe” and “For What it’s Worth” with his pre-Zeppelin “Band of Joy.” This desire continued throughout Led Zeppelin and well into his solo career. Since 2002, Plant has had a creative spike that, at first appeared as a fluke, but has remained surprisingly consistent for well over a decade now. I remember reading the reviews to Dreamland (2002) and The Mighty ReArranger (2005), and every review kept saying “this is the best that Plant has sounded since Led Zeppelin.” It’s a cliché for a solo musician to be haunted by their more successful band of yore, and that cliché is perhaps truest for Led Zeppelin’s whimsical and wailing front man.
Some Of That Haunting Has Good Reason
Plant’s solo work has always been teetering between casting off Zeppelin’s bravado and swagger, and embracing it with knowing winks and nods. In the same way he steals from Willie Dixon in “Whole Lotta Love” he has made it a point to steal from his catalog of 1971 to give his audience a fix of the good-old-days, before indulging in his passionate and ever-changing exploration of music. Lineage is just as important as exploration, and for Plant, the two concepts are interchangeable.
It has taken shape in the form of musical wandering starting almost immediately following John Bonham’s death. In the late 80s, he teamed up with Phil Johnstone to make Synth-y hard rock. In the 90s, he reunited with Jimmy Page for a live unplugged (including an eastern tinged orchestra) and studio record with mixed results. It wasn’t until Dreamland and The Mighty ReArranger when he teamed up with African crossover guitarist Justin Adams, and Portishead and Massive Attack collaborator keyboardist John Baggott, that Plant came into his own as a solo artist, striking a balance between past and future. Between 2005 and 2014, Plant explored Americana music with two albums Raising Sand on Band of Joy, but on Lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar, Adams and Baggott are back in the fold and he strikes a different kind of balance.
The Difference Between This Plant and the Plant of 2006
It’s immediately evident on the first track “Little Maggie” which, along with “Poor Howard,” looks back and reformulate a traditional track as he did on Dreamland, Raising Sand, and Band of Joy. On “Little Maggie,” swirls of pulsating synth and repetitive banjo against syncopated drumming clues the listener into the arrangement even before Plant or the ritti (a West African fiddle, played by Juldeh Camara) enters the fray. The result is a tasteful and textured imagining of what would happen if trance and world music met Americana and decided what they had in common.
The World Music Influence
It continues to shine through on “Rainbow” and “Pocketful of Golden,” with the former being a lilting, optimistic pop song crafted for NPR’s various radio outlets, and the latter winking to Zeppelin starting lyrics: “And if the sun refused to shine.” But even though the lyrics and guitars sound vaguely like “Thank You,” it’s couched between keyboards that recall Phil Johnstone on the 1990 song “Tie Dye on the Highway,” and Camara’s Ritti. The tone shifts from optimistic to forlorn and grandiose with “Embrace another Fall,” where we get the first inclusion of a distorted guitar. It’s wisely used with restraint, setting up the bluesy distortion of “Turn it On.”
The Album Rocks The Hardest on “Turn it On.”
It has tinges of world music, using a funky beat which sounds almost like a Tom Waits off of Bone Machine or even Primus at their worldliest. Plant sings about riding around and being stuck in a radio, taking a melody mirroring The Mighty ReArranger’s “Tin Pan Alley.” Simple distorted guitars roar in the chorus and obvious comparisons could be made to Zeppelin, but it’s just two chords, and hard rock gives way to a guitar solo by Justin Adams that sounds more like Ali Farka Touré than Jimmy Page. Clocking in at just over four minutes, the song sounds like a check mark to appease fans who want the rock, and if there’s any song that’s underwritten on the album, it’s this one.
If “Turn it On” Is The “Ceaseless Roar,” then “A Stolen Kiss” Epitomizes The “Lullaby”
Plant has always been one to hit the sensitive pathos with ballads about love and loss. On this, and later, “House of Love,” the implied subject is his recent break-up with Band of Joy co-singer Patty Griffin. From Zeppelin’s aforementioned “Thank You,” to 1988’s gorgeous “Ship of Fools,” to his cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” his voice is both soft and empathic. “A Stolen Kiss” ranks up there as one of his best. “Lost and found / and lost yet again,” has never sounded as sincere and mature as his voice cracks on the high notes over a piano. His love ballads can sometimes come off as another check mark, but this is the highpoint of the record with excellent writing, and a finely tuned ear for melody.
Balance Is Something That Plant Takes Very Seriously
It’s an ambitious and calculated attempt to fuse three disparate traditions: West African world music, European Trance, and American Blues Rock. World Music and American Blues Rock outweighs the Trance, which he uses with subtlety, aside from the “coda” track . In press releases Plant characterizes the album as an “English” album, which doesn’t seem like a completely accurate. It doesn’t appear to come from any particular country’s tradition, but rather, it’s caught between a break-up album and an album that wants to summarize a music lover’s eclectic influences.