At the bouncy age of 66, former Led Zeppelin front man and recent Americana tourist Robert Plant has reinvented himself yet again. As what? Not sure but it’s definitely a thing. It’s a thing with a bunch of instruments and a lot going on. Mr. Plant has teamed up with The Sensational Space Shifters in his 10th solo release and together they have compiled eleven tracks of…pretty cool stuff. Seven years after his streamlined and highly-listenable collaboration with Allison Krauss, Raising Sand, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar finds our hero back on this side of the Atlantic, newly single (from songwriting goddess Patty Griffin) and ready for anything and everything. And anything and everything is precisely what we get.
The album introduces itself with what one would assume is a banjo. One would be wrong. It’s actually a kologo – the banjo’s African sister. It leads folk traditional ‘Little Maggie’ into a makeover with some good-old fashioned African Electronica. The chaos blossoms from there. ‘Rainbow’ is a heavy on the bass while the lyrics and vocals reach upwards. Anyway you turn that one, it’s a fucking great song. ‘A Stolen Kiss’ begins with and needs nothing more than the upright bass and piano. But the simplicity of the ballad is saturated with musical add-ins, which succeeds more in subtracting than adding. The same can be said for at least half the songs on the record. It moves fast and wide and tends towards inventing for invention’s sake, and further away from a train you can ride.
But 50 years of Plant being one of the best around ensures that a certain sophistication is present. This record didn’t appear out of nowhere; if it did, you wouldn’t trust it as much. It’s not a nod to the inventions of his musical past, but more an homage to music itself – a crosscut of the moment of inspiration. And his game of mixing and matching is intriguing yet half-a-foot shy of satisfying. Every song features five or more instruments and is claimed by five or more writers. One can’t help but remember the old adage: a camel is a horse built by committee. However, it would be unfair to call this an experiment. It’s not. Being unsatisfying is not the same thing as being unthoughtful. The musicians on this record have cut their teeth on every rock they could get their hands on since well before many of us were born. And while the sound is raw and at times dissipated, it may very well be the bark before the bite.
The remarkable thing about Robert Plant is that he tackles each new endeavour with the energy of a 14-year old. Back before Led Zeppelin and the Grammys and the saddle of defining anything, much less a generation. Back when you were allowed to sit in a room and make music by throwing together a bunch of pretty cool stuff. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t but you can’t argue that he’s earned the right to try.