On his TV show recently, Jonathan Ross claimed, somewhat impishly, to be the inspiration behind Toyah Willcox’s recent facelift. Pondering which male counterpart should be next, he plumped for Robert Plant. Well I don’t know about you, but if I looked that good at 57 I’d be delighted, even more so if I was making music of the standard achieved here.
Plant’s solo career has come in for its fair share of criticism in the past, but after the much vaunted reunion with Jimmy Page in the late 1990s fell stale it was clear going solo was the way forward. Left to his own devices he sounds much more at home, free to incorporate styles and influences as he chooses, and even free to turn the guitars down a notch.
For in Page’s place are two fine guitarists, combining with personnel from very different areas of British music. Ex-Cast strummer Skin Tyson and fellow guitarist Justin Adamssecure a myriad of acoustic and electronic texures, helped by the Massive Attack keyboard player John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Clive Deamer, who has previous with Portishead.
North Africa exerts a strong influence, in particular the percussion, harmony and rhythms of Morocco. Immediately evident in Another Tribe, Plant marries these elements with blues in the thrilling Freedom Fries, then with a style approaching dub in the atmospheric Tin Pan Valley.
This track has particularly revealing lyrics, Plant noting that “my peers may flirt with cabaret, some fake their rebel yell”, before exploding into the howl we all know (and most love) from Zeppelin days. As he approaches the later stages of his career Plant keeps this weapon under wraps more, harnessing its power and demonstrating a broader vocal range. Indeed sometimes his voice approaches a whisper, as at the close of The Enchanter, or it sounds openly relaxed, as on the assured semi-ballad All The King’s Horses.
Amongst the African influences a strong sense of Englishness pervades the lyrics, as does a set of pertinent observations about the current state of current affairs. In the wrong hands this could sound horribly cheesy, but Plant retains a certain subtlety, and even vulnerability, when he asks “will the meek inherit all the earth?” on the opener.
To sum up then, an impressively vital album, reflecting a man who, having already achieved a lifetime’s worth of musical (and other) highs, retains a fiercely creative spirit and a desire to express himself. This is the most relaxed and assured he’s sounded for ages, and when he sings “reach out to the flame” on Dancing In Heaven, the least we can do is join him, rather than listen to Jonathan Ross!