It’s no coincidence that Robert Plant has been the only thing standing in the way of a Led Zeppelin reunion tour ever since the band’s one-off set at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. Because he’s the only guy who doesn’t need it. John Paul Jones’s career as an artist and producer has been even more woefully underappreciated than his work with Zeppelin. And the only times Jimmy Page has been worth listening to since In Through the Out Door have been when he’s dusted off old Zeppelin tunes on live records, either with Plant or the Black Crowes. (At one point, Page needed his old foil so badly that he teamed up with one of his most ham-handed imitators, releasing the album Coverdale/Page in 1993 with Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale. Yes, this is something that happened.)
In this context, Plant’s solo oeuvre has been a triumph, because it’s marked by not only chart success, but fearless eclecticism. His 10th album, Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar, is just the latest example of an artist refusing to content himself with his legacy (or digestible album titles). Since his 1982 debut, he’s given us everything from Zeppelin-esque bombast to new wave, worldbeat, glistening country duets and a golden oldies EP. As he said to Rolling Stone back in May, “Do you know why the Eagles said they’d reunite when ‘hell freezes over,’ but they did it anyway and keep touring? … It’s because they’re bored. I’m not bored.”
On Lullaby, the vocalist and songwriter certainly makes good on that declaration, his refreshing lack of desperation taking shape in a melting pot of Americana, new age and electronic music. It contains the raw materials of his best work – crystalline vocals that sound like a soft breeze could scatter them; a reverence for the blues that’s light years away from Zeppelin’s early parodies; a fascination with minor-key Eastern melodies that hearkens back to classics like “Friends” and “Kashmir”. But while you have to respect the artist’s desire to take the crowd-pleasing, Grammy-approved formula of his last few records into wilder, hazier places, the results don’t always reach their intended target.
The opening “Little Maggie” starts out promisingly enough, weaving Plant’s ethereal voice with a humbly plucked banjo and some gloomy electronics – a compelling way to revamp an old bluegrass standard. But after a few verses, the track bursts into a new age groove that’s slicker than Yanni’s mustache. It doesn’t bode well for Plant’s new backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters, who aim for border-erasing sonic nirvana and get something closer to the bland cultural appropriation pop of Sting’s Brand New Day album.
Thankfully, this overreaching is the exception, not the rule. Most of the record is in the vein of the ensuing gem “Rainbow”, a love-conquers-all ballad marked by Plant’s sweeping “oohs” and lyrics about reaching for the stars that hit home against all odds. With its gorgeous, lazy river melody, it’s tempting to say the track could be a Raising Sand b-side, except the sonic palette is darker. The Space Shifters prove their mettle here, delivering a nuanced mix of subtle electronics, layered percussion and ringing guitar chords. A few tracks later, they exhibit a similarly subtle touch while finally nailing that elusive haunted groove on “Turn It Up,” using just two slithering guitar chords and some lightly syncopated percussion. Plant delivers a telling line here, a look inside the mindset of an artist who equates doing the expected to entrapment – “I’m stuck inside the radio / Turn it on and let me out!”
Lullaby does cross over into that new age territory a few more times, especially on “Pocketful of Golden”, where Plant sets the standard impossibly high by delivering the opening phrase of “Thank You” – “If the sun refused to shine” – only for a tinny drum loop and a tinnier flute-like figure to bring back those memories of Sting trying too hard. One could argue that this is a good problem, an example of a bold work that refuses to follow the formula of recent triumphs. Because when pretty much everything is stripped away but piano for “A Stolen Kiss,” we hear how gifted Plant remains. “I am drawn to the Western shore / Where the light moves bright upon the tide,” he sings. Knowing what a Tolkien fan he is, I imagine this is a reference to Valinor, the Blessed Realm of the Elves in the distant Western sea. As an artist who can still embody a track with a mysticism all his own, he’s got more than a bit of Elvish in him. It’s pretty amazing that he still refuses to coast on those abilities, to yawn and collect checks like Don Henley. Because that yawning would still sound great.