Robert Plant has always embraced the folkloric. The songs he wrote for Led Zeppelin referenced Viking sagas, Tolkien, and tales of the occult, while his solo efforts have often sought inspiration in American myths and folk traditions. The singer-songwriter relishes myths not just for their historic or formal qualities, but for the rich language they offer, and on Carry Fire he taps into familiar archetypes—faithless lovers, conquering explorers, wayfaring strangers—to make sense of his own life experience. It's an imaginative tapestry of sounds and stories, where regional music from America, Europe, and Africa blends together into something seamless and intuitive, while the songs seem at once like ancient texts and yesterday's diary entries.
Plant has spent his solo career trying to jettison nostalgic comparisons to Led Zeppelin, making music that's as hushed and intimate as his former band was primal and howling. And he's made each solo album feel different than the last, creating a body of work where there's room enough for the austere beauty of his duets with Alison Krauss on 2007's Grammy-winning Raising Sand, the raucous Americana of 2010's Band of Joy, and the globetrotting polyrhythms of 2014's Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. Carry Fire feels very much like a culmination of all of that, his deepest dive yet into international folk forms. This is an album that's detailed, immediate, and full of life.
The result is one of his most accomplished and casually ambitious albums, one that borrows freely from different cultural and musical vernaculars without ever veering into parody or pastiche. The opening song, “The May Queen,” has the twang of Americana but also moody atmospherics that give it an otherworldly sheen. By contrast, “Carving Up the World” fuses slippery African rhythms to rockabilly guitar, while the title track brings together the drone of Indian music with the fiery, chopped soloing of flamenco.
Even the songs with the most explicitly historical narratives can't help but double as personal confessions.
What unites all these disparate sounds is the subtlety that Plant brings to his performances: He never lets out a full-force roar, and many of the songs here are practically sung in a whisper. The Sensational Space Shifters, with whom he previously collaborated on Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, provide light and heat, making even the more somber songs—like the atmospheric “Dance with You”—sound vital and vibrant. Plant's mystique draws the listener in close, where it becomes clear that these stories and confessions, though rooted in the past, also find him thinking about the future.
“The May Queen” sets the tone, with Plant referencing “the dimming of my light.” He's never been so introspective about being in his twilight years, yet Carry Fire is neither morbid nor sentimental. Plant has always cast himself as a pilgrim making progress, and these songs grasp for a sense of transcendence in a world of fleeting pleasures. More often than not, that transcendence comes through intimacy. It's surely no coincidence that the opening manifesto is quickly followed by some of its most straightforward love songs (“Season's Song,” “Dance with You”), nor that the title song is all about being “scarred” by a love strong enough to hurt and change us.
Even the songs with the most explicitly historical narratives can't help but double as personal confessions. “New World” and “Carving Up the World” both reference setting suns and crumbling empires, and speak to undiscovered lands and the dawn of a new horizon; these could be songs about failing countries or simply about men who have reached their golden years. Plant is clearly still restless and ready to explore, and Carry Fire is his map and compass. The album's roots go back to Zeppelin's immersion in English folk and American blues, but here Plant displays everything he’s learned along the way; Carry Fire's sophistication and mystique place it among the most ambitious and evocative albums of his legendary career.