Robert Plant shifts through space and time with his new album, “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar”
In July of 2007 I was working for the Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, as a TV Rights Coordinator (getting bands and performers to approve their festival performances for TV broadcast) and one of the headliners of the festival that year was none other than Robert Plant himself. “Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation” to be exact. In case you have been living in a rock-less bubble for the past 40 years, Plant was the charismatic and soulful lead singer of the monstrous Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin were THE band that got me hooked onto classic rock music (or simply hard rock, as it was known back then). So when I think back to the 2007 Exit Festival, I can’t really remember any other band or performer that year except for Plant and the Sensation rocking hard on the Main Stage. During their performance I was standing stage left, just to the side of guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson’s guitar amps and I was so in awe that I barely remember any of the songs except for a rendition of a classic Zep track, “Rock & Roll” I think it was.
A few years later, I watched the footage of that performance and realised that it was far from anything Zeppelin had ever done before…and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There were more musicians, different sounds, subtle notes, soulful melodies and so on. The performance wasn’t Plant trying to get crowd approval by playing Zeppelin songs. It was Robert Plant’s performance and what a performance it was…and the enthusiastic festival crowd agreed.
But I digress… the reason I mention his 2007 festival performance is because it was at that moment that I realised that Robert Plant had moved on. Moved on from Led Zeppelin, moved on from hard rock, moved on from making music that would just get you head-banging and playing that air guitar like no one’s business. That performance got me to look into what Plant had been doing with his career since Zeppelin disbanded (after the death of their legendary drummer John Bonham in 1980). And he has been quite active, releasing a total of 10 studio albums, a couple of compilation and a couple of collaborative albums, the most successful of the latter being 2007’s “Raising Sand” with Allison Krauss (which won Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards).
His latest release, “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” with his new band, The Sensational Space Shifters, is an album that, in my opinion, is one of the best albums I have heard in a while. I say this not as a Zeppelin fan, for “Lullaby…” is far from even resembling a Zeppelin album and why should it? 24 years and over 10 albums later, it is clear that Robert Plant has built a very successful solo career and the music he makes is the music that he wants to make.
“Lullaby…” is one of those albums that, the more you listen to it, the more it grows on you and makes you want to listen to it even more. Over the years I have come up with a theory that a really good/excellent album from a band or performer is an album that “makes sense” as a whole, but also whose songs are uniquely individual. A great album doesn’t have 10 or 12 or however many songs that all sound similar. Each song has its own sound, its own emotions, its own soul…and the songs on “Lullaby…” do just that.
“Little Maggie” opens the album with a worldly concoction of instruments and sounds. There’s a banjo, a tehardant, a tabal and even a ritti solo mid-way through, all the while Plant’s soothing voice is tying it all together. This isn’t a way of putting a whole bunch of instruments together and hoping the outcome is “listenable”, but instead it’s a brilliantly arranged composition that is melodic, mysterious, folky, European, African…all at once and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.
On songs like “Rainbow” and “Turn It Up”, Plant showcases his vocal diversity from his infamous “Oooo”‘s to his gritty, bluesy soulful licks. Lest Plant forgets his hard-rock roots, “Turn It Up” features some distorted guitars just to keep things in check. The eclectic array of instruments is again on display on “Pocketful of Gold” and “Embrace Another Fall” with Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara keeping things funky and exciting with their djembes and kologos.
“A Stolen Kiss”, half way through the album is a lovely, yet immensely sad piano ballad where Plant’s soothing vocals are accompanied by the tender playing of John Baggott’s piano. Picking things up again is the upbeat, retrospective “Somebody There” with catchy guitar riffs and an even catchier chorus of “There is somebody there I know…There is somebody there I know it so.” It’s safe to say that this was the song that got my feet tapping and is that one song I find myself humming when no music is playing.
“The record feels different. It’s a consummation of all those bits from Son House to Roni Size to the Gambia and it seems to have some sort of finality.” – Robert Plant
The folky “Poor Howard” features Nicola Powell on backing vocals and is Plant’s interpretation of Lead Belly’s “Po’ Howard”. It features more of Liam Tyson’s banjo playing, accompanied by the fiddle-sounding tehardant and deep, baritone, choir-style background vocals. Listening to it, one gets a sense of just travelling the world, visiting different places and meeting different people and wanting to do it all over again and again.
If I have to pick one track that stands out from all the rest, one track that I could keep playing on repeat all day and one track that encompasses all that Robert Plant is and has done for music, it would have to be “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)”. The track begins with a cheeky little guitar riff that harks back to the Zeppelin days when Jimmy Page would zone out and create blissful sounds on an acoustic guitar. The sound is soft yet bluesy and gives way to rhythmic drumming spiced up with various sounds and samples throughout before Plant comes in with his hoarse, yet gentle whispering.
“All I want… all I brave… all I crave… Is a love that takes, my breath away.”
The music and Plant’s singing take you on a mystical journey through the universe. An eerie journey, without a sense of whether you’ll be coming back. And just when you think he has taken you to the edge, the music slows down even more with only a sampler playing somewhere far off in the distance and then… then the heartfelt, blues-infused notes from a pedal-steel guitar come creeping in and whisk you away to another glaxy, into another dimension, another space in time where everything seems to be so clear and where nothing else seems to matter except the notes that are being played. The guitar slides away and Plant’s soothing voice brings you back to reality, but keeps you enchanted and keeps you wondering and wishing for more.
The album closes with “Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)”, a song that starts off like the intro to an early 90’s rave mix, with samples and loops swinging from speaker to speaker (thanks to Billy Fuller’s omnichord) and then broadens out into a rhythmic and beat-filled collaboration with jungle-esque drumming, spacey guitar riffs and a blend of Plant’s wailing voice and Juldeh Camara’s Fulani vocals. The two men go back and forth in this vocal duel before the drumming swallows them again and the song (and album) slowly fade out.
“Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” is a great album with great songs and great musicians. It’s not a hard rock album, it’s not a folk album, it’s not a psychedelic album. It’s all that and more. “Lullaby…” is the culmination of decades of work, experience, influence and travel. It’s the sound of a man who has lived through it all, has shifted through space and time and is still here today, making music that all of us will one day be able to relate to and enjoy. As Plant himself said about the record “[It] feels different. It’s a consummation of all those bits from Son House to Roni Size to the Gambia and it seems to have some sort of finality.”
Note for Note Blog Album Rating: 5/5 RockStars
Stand-out Tracks: “Somebody There” and “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)”
Follow Robert Plant on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest news and tour dates. Buy the new album, “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” on iTunes and check out his live performance below of “Little Maggie” from Glastonbury 2014: