The dying of the light
The weight of history lies heavily on Robert Plant’s shoulders but as he approaches his 70th birthday in apparently finer fettle than many of his classic rock peers, ‘Percy’ is making the most of his reputation. The sole Led Zeppelin member still making albums and touring, Plant clearly enjoys what he does and while his voice reflects his age he can still carry a tune, just not with as much energy as he once did. Carry Fire is the 11th solo album in the Plant cannon and was made with his band the Sensational Space Shifters which includes Brit folkie Seth Lakeman on viola and fiddle and guitarist Justin Adams who has worked with Brian Eno, Sinéad O’Connor and Tinariwen. There is a cameo by Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde on one track and Albanian cellist Redi Hasa adds a bit of texture to the tonal gumbo.
This is a strange sounding album, on most tracks there is a thick blanket over nearly everything from the lower midband downwards, it’s not thickener in the Metallica sense but a general warm and muddy effect that is not unappealing but makes it hard to hear what’s going on. Things sometimes get a bit messy higher up the scale as well, there are some weird distortions on the guitars of Season’s Song and a generally grungy feel to highs throughout. Whether this has been done to provide a contrast with the relatively clear presentation of the voice is hard to say but as Plant himself is credited with production anything is possible. The best tracks are those where this thickener is reduced, such as the relatively quiet A Way With Words featuring piano, synths and a chunky slow bass line. Here the voice is given a bit more space and doesn’t seem to be swamped by the band.
The opener The May Queen takes its title from the officially unplayable (see Wayne’s World) Stairway to Heaven but that’s about the only Zeppelin reference on the album, it features acoustic steel string guitars and a big bass drum albeit beneath the aforementioned sonic fog. The title track is more interesting and hark’s back to Plant’s days in Marrakesh with an electric oud and other middle eastern instrumentation. This creates a different vibe and one that’s picked up elsewhere on the album.
Lyrically there is a lot of reflection on Carry Fire, I guess when you are of pensionable age such things are inevitable, and Plant must have several volumes of biography in his memory banks, assuming the lifestyle hasn’t erased them. The most interesting song is Carving Up the World Again where he takes a stand against the posturing of world leaders and their desire to fence people in with walls, pointing out that the Chinese did this long before a certain president came up with the idea. This as with many of the songs is credited to most of the band members Plant included, the Chrissie Hynde duet is an old song Bluebirds Over the Mountain.
I suspect that Carry Fire is one for the fans, it’s a pretty good effort for a man of Percy’s vintage but the production doesn’t help. I recommend everyone else give his very early work another spin, it’s very hard to beat.