Robert Plant, “Carry Fire” (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.)
One of the weirder chapters in rock history happened in 2014. That’s when Led Zeppelin won a Grammy for best rock album for a seven-year-old concert recording while the band’s former frontman Robert Plant somehow didn’t even scrounge up a nomination for easily one of the best albums of the year.
Three years later, let’s hope the future doesn’t again get overshadowed by the past.
The 11-track “Carry Fire” finds Plant backed by his talented band, the Sensational Space Shifters, and thrillingly exploring the same fascinating terrain of rootsy folk and achy blues.
If 2014’s “lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar” seemed very personal and soaked in heartbreak, the new album has Plant in a somewhat happier place and looking to the horizon, perhaps becoming more political.
“New World” is a bitter look at the way we treat immigrants, “Carving Up the World Again” mocks border walls and “Bones of a Saint” coolly dispatches religious fervor. He pushes deeper than ever into Middle Eastern sounds with the outstanding oud-filled title track, an exhilarating multicultural triumph.
Of course, no one does love like Plant — mature, earthy and world-weary. Here, he seems to have found a new spark — “Lay down in sweet surrender/ Your love so warm and tender,” he sings in the opening song. On another, the standout “A Way With Words,” he sings: “Coming from the cold/ Reaching for your sweet embrace.”
As with his last album, there are coy nods to his past, like the title of the first song, the strummy anthem “May Queen,” which Zeppelin fans will instantly recognize from “Stairway to Heaven.” He sings about “dancing days” here, which is also the title of a song on 1973’s “Houses of the Holy.”
There’s an intimacy to Plant’s weathered voice throughout, so intimate in fact that it sometimes feels as if we’re intruding on a very personal moment. He’s also using more modern technology to create an album that seamlessly mixes cello, bendir and Moog synthesizer, backed by the accomplished musicians John Baggott, Justin Adams, Billy Fuller, Dave Smith and Liam “Skin” Tyson.
If anyone still needs proof of the skills on offer here, look no further than the cover of Ersel Hickey’s “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a rockabilly ditty from the ’50s of no special importance. Plant and his band — joined by Chrissie Hynde — give it a dark synth texture and menacing guitar, making it closer to a David Bowie tune.
There are few undisputed rock stars this accomplished still taking musical risks. Plant’s songwriting remains a class above, even as he nears 70. “Out here the fire’s still burning/ So long into my night,” he sings. Long may it burn.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits