Gone are the days when a sinewy, open-shirted Robert Plant would gyrate and yelp his way around stadium stages across the world as the frontman of the immortal Led Zeppelin. The thing is, unlike a lot of rockers of his ilk, he has risen to the challenge of aging gracefully – well, as gracefully as the now sexagenarian sex symbol could hope to age – and has experienced a late-career renaissance by collaborating with everyone from Alison Krauss to members of Massive Attack. Much to the chagrin of Jimmy Page however, Plant is only interested in working with him again in an acoustic capacity so we can keep holding our breath for another Zeppelin reunion, but there’s something admirable about his insistence to move forward artistically instead of capitalizing on the past.
This intrepid ambition is in full effect on Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar – his 10th solo studio endeavor. Teaming up with the members of his touring band The Sensational Space Shifters and ridiculously acclaimed mixer Tchad Blake, Lullaby plays like a futuristic, north African bastard-blues hybrid with its roots stretching all the way from Leadbelly to ambient ‘90s trip-hop and almost everything in between. Kicking off with a weirdly electronic take on the traditional Little Maggie, complete with the perplexing dichotomy of dueling banjos and intergalactic synth textures, it’s clear from the get-go that this is certainly not a record for the diehard Zeppelin purist contingent.
If not for the bourgeoning ethnic percussion throughout, Rainbow wanders dangerously into present-day U2 territory with Plant’s falsetto soaring above minimalist guitar and the grimy, almost Trent Reznor-ish textures on Pocketful of Golden anchor some kind of wild indigenous flute and some truly lush string-work. The haunting momentum of Embrace Another Fall wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a mid-90’s Björk record until its epic middle-8 that sounds like the second coming of Zeppelin IV (probably as close as we’re gonna get for a while, so lap it up kids!). Turn It Up is a slinky little number that blurs the line between juke-joint jump-blues and a kind of dark, hip-hop beatcraft and despite falling into neither camp (or perhaps because it doesn’t) it definitely gives neo-blues whippersnappers like Gary Clark Jr. and John Mayer a run for their money.
Things get sentimental on A Stolen Kiss – a measured, emotive piano ballad that places Plant’s iconic rasp front and center with nothing but tastefully thunderous double bass and languid guitar to hide behind. Sadly, Somebody There sounds a little like an over-earnest offcut from Zeppelin III that probably should’ve stayed in the tape vault. That being said, it isn’t nearly as cringeworthy as a lot of aged rockers’ caterwauling; it’s just a bit too power-ballad-y for a record that’s as adventurous as this.
The adaptation of Leadbelly’s Poor Howard brings things back down home with some good old-fashioned Appalachian bluegrass charm that could almost double as jaunty Celtic folk but House of Love – after opening with a massive cinematic string overture (melodically doubled with theremin, mind you) kind of just plods away, sadly not really going anywhere. But then you have Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur). Dark and foreboding in all the right kinds of ways – it’s a deliberately poised and hushed delivery of the kind of rock song that would’ve made an arena of people explode in the ‘70s, but the restraint in the bands playing absolutely makes the song. Rounding out the set is Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby) – the kind of slow-burning polyrhythmic, odd time signature freakout groove upon which Plant built his reputation in the mighty Zep, but the eastern vocals and greasy synth work show Plant’s deliberate shift in intention during his twilight years. While he clearly doesn’t deliberately set out to alienate the millions of people who still share in “No Stairway” jokes and enthusiastically wail along when their local pub cover band mangles Whole Lotta Love, he’s not about to rest on his laurels any time soon.
Music writer Chuck Klosterman posed the theory that every man, at some point in his life, goes through his “Led Zeppelin phase”. Luckily for Plant (and therefore the rest of us), his happened when he was actually a member of Led Zeppelin. While his historical stint in one of the greatest rock outfits the world will ever see clearly informs his creative output to this day, it’s his forward thinking and willingness to try new things that has spared him from the painfully wilted nostalgia of many of his contemporaries and Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar stacks up against records by bands less than half the man’s age and for this, he should be duly thanked and congratulated.