For the aging rocker, growing grey contains nothing but doubt right where it’s last needed: in the recording booth.
Once a surefire bet, the studio becomes a shaman’s table. And no matter how many combinations add up to seven, neither the musician nor the witch doctor deal in hard numbers. Confidence, once a font, becomes a puddle. Questions appear: Will the creative well run dry? When does vocal prowess fade and guitar leads blow out?
Seen Rod Stewart lately? Mick Jagger? Steven Tyler? What about Brian Johnson? None of these artists have released an original LP for years. Either relying on the royalty checks from albums long since passed or simply touring a refined hitlist to rock out their last years on Earth. It’s the pinch of old age: the creativity squelched out of the brain, dripped across the calendar, painting certain days; besmirching others. After the thrilling No Quarter with fellow Led alumi Jimmy Page, and subsequent world tours, the duo followed up with the more rootsy yet limpid Walking Into Clarksdale in 1997 and in 2001, Robert Plant felt this squeeze. It seemed this once-golden god of rock, this Baldr-turned-Odin, had begun to grasp at straws in a shallow cup. The blues-berry juice devoured, the taste of Zeppelin remnants now bitter.
Poor fools, this cup goes deep, deep, deep down. All the way to the dark bellows of Zeppelin I, swimming in the black water. No mere dead rock ‘n’ roll, but a living, breathing creature of the cosmic deep. That creature is Robert Plant. In the water is Dreamland. As a record, it is a question. As an answer, it is a word: yes.
Backing himself with a new band aptly dubbed the Strange Sensation, 2001’s Robert Plant is a mystery. And his reply rebounds and resounds across the grotto with the tekk of a darbuka and twang of a guembri.
It’s not filled to the brim with originals. Nah, it’s a refuel on roots ’66. Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew,” “Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” The Youngblood’s “Darkness, Darkness,” wait—cut through the psilocybin fog, and remember none of these cuts were originally released in ’66. But that doesn’t matter, because what does matter is how Plant retools these covers to storm over the cavern of your headphones, biting the rock with an acid rain and using reverberating instruments to echo through the dark recesses of each rework. It starts with “One More Cup of Coffee,” where Plant’s voice toys coyly with Dylan’s lyricism:
“And your pleasure knows no limit
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark”
This ominous valley creeps with a sinister air, Plant’s aural wickedness plays crypt keeper as Justin Adam’s guembri this way comes, winding along Cure alum Porl Thompson’s licentious, gothic licks. It’s spooky blues for Hallow’s Eve’s past.
Throw in John Baggot’s eerie keyboards and the cut is ready to take your hand straight to hell. Now a Plant regular, Baggot shines with his string compositions on “Morning Dew” and “Song to the Siren.” Stirring drama into the former cut, something the Grateful Dead never could, Baggot texturizes the acoustic guitars of Thompson and Adams, duetting in a way that only Cannonball and Coltrane’s saxophones could match.
None of Plant’s backing bands of the 80’s or 90’s can compare to this level of musicality, because this quintet works as a unit. Something has changed—something is clearer in focus, no longer shrouded in the midnight darkness. That something is Plant’s creative goals. So much for a lack of confidence. He finally knows where he wants to go and how to get there. After a score of running from his Zeppelin heritage, he’s back at it again with the Maghreb influences and the denseness of Physical Graffiti. Even the original tracks like “Funny In My Mind” and “Win My Train Fare Home” contain elements of the gloomiest Zeppelin tradition: meddling with old blues standards.
But at least this time there’s some damn credits.
For “Win My Train Fare Home,” it’s an actual medley. In fact, it’s a rambling man, reminiscing before coming home and giving his “Whole Lotta Love.” For the Bukka White-inspired “Funny In My Mind,” it’s a return to the same ripping, sonic chainsaw from “In My Time of Dying.”
But nothing will haunt this hollow more than the dusky cover of “Darkness, Darkness.” A slower, moodier, broodier “Stairway” of Plant’s career, Thompson’s guitar chews bones with ghoulish, wood-chipping appetite. Plant attempts a repeat of the trick on “Hey Joe,” but no matter how much fire and brimstone spits throughout that cover, it can’t match the graveyard shiver of “Darkness, Darkness.” The skeleton wants to shake out of the skin just thinking of that damn thing. And that’s how it is: across 10 cuts, Plant out-Cohen’s the dearly departed Leonard Cohen. He doesn’t ask if you want it darker. He just paints black over black over black.
It’s not his important album, it’s not even his best. But it does set the table for the latter half of Plant’s career, when the musicality mimics the mood and texture grinds with full force.
Producers: Phil Brown, Robert Plant
- “Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ To Die)”
- “Morning Dew”
- “One More Cup of Coffee”
- “Last Time I Saw Her”
- “Song to the Siren”
- “Win My Train Fare Home ( If I Ever Get Lucky)”
- “Darkness, Darkness”
- “Red Dress”
- “Hey Joe”
- “Skip’s Song”
- “Dirt in a Hole” (Bonus Track)
- “Last Time I Saw—Remix” (Bonus Track)