It should be stated: this is my favourite record Plant’s ever signed his name to.
Further, it’s the best record he’s ever done—and that’s including Led Zeppelin. A pause, one word of incredulity and the question en suite:
“What!” Rings the first bell.
“LED ZEPPELIN III EXISTS!” Lights the rest.
Yes, yes, yes, to tell the town, it must seem heretical! But this denies a powerful, intricate journey Plant has enjoyed since the end of his epic of Gods amongst men, as a bard of the beserkergangs waxing with the waves of each great stadium surge, each tidal thrust of Page’s many axes, the smack of Bonham’s maces, the remedies of John Paul Jones’ pagan medicine bag. Rambling on solo and consorting with Phil Collins in a frequent but inconsistent manner, Plant’s Eighties records were solid but unspectacular, his backing bandmates always bringing elements to bear, but no solid artistic vision outside of a simple directive: “not Zeppelin.”
And try as he might, but the spectre of Zeppelin would haunt him throughout the early Nineties—him only finally accepting it with the monumental No Quarter collaboration with Jimmy Page. From there, Americana, delta blues, dervish, Berber and roots rock began to swirl and come together more easily to him, instead of striving to transfigure his past away, Plant assumed the head job of an alchemist’s guild containing to, a lesser or greater extent brewing cauldron after cauldron of ergot bubbles from the slopes of Applachia to the sands of Mali to the streets of Marrakesh and back now to the black hills in Wales. This wizened son of Baldr, fair-haired-turned-silver wears his route: toes tapping, shoed in Appalachian leather, voice coaxing, coated in soft Kashmir, wrists weaving, frilled in West African silk, legs loose, lined with Welsh wool. In his hands are a bendir—his percussive addition that outdoes a simple tambourine man.
It’s all there on lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar. Commencing with brooding bayou rock, blossoming Celtic chantries of doom, finishing the frenetic mania of a Jajoukan dervish with guitars whistling each note in steamboat blues. Every step—and misstep—is represented. Even the adventure-prone production belies a similar approach to Shaken ‘N’ Stirred.
Yes, Carry Fire is the record that receives more acclaim, but lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar is by far the better album. The former does its title justice, it carries fire and continues an impressive run of personal success since The Mighty ReArranger (a record that just sounds more and more divine every listen), Carry Fire is the melting pot in full action: everything starts to really goop together. But that can leave some songs wanting for form. lullaby, meanwhile, lacks not in form—the transitions from style to style are noticeable, yet seamless—Plant had not yet begun his full work with elements, instead continuing his travail in things with elements bled in: “Little Maggie” with its work-song wracked guitar and wailing riti; “Rainbow” with its pounding percussive sections; “Pocketful of Golden,” with its echoing sentiments of a cut 46 years its senior; “Turn It Up” with Liam “Skin” Tyson’s and Justin Adam’s menacing riffwork; “A Stolen Kiss” with John Baggot’s piano sounding just as glass textures: smooth yet stark; “Poor Howard,” with its banjo soaring amongst a digital rereading of Lead Belly; “Up On Hollow Hill” and “House of Love” with their death-march haunt of Dreamland; “Arbaden” with Baggot’s travail to chew up “Little Maggie” and spit it back out by the bits.
The songs all follow the greater evolution of twelve-bar blues and roots rock, but the sheer number of elements gives this now-classic music form modern wings, flying past any turbulent swirl of too much instrumentation. Each has its part, consequently even the conventional sounds new and fresh—the guitars and synthesizers and pianos are a soil base, but more often the kologo, ritis, bendirs, Moogs, djembes, tehardants come to mix within the loam as rhythmic and sonic clay. The largely African-based bells and whistles are than played as—well to make another metaphor—if these instruments were alive, then Adams, Tyson and Juldeh Camara play these to within an inch. Absorbent and sponged with the scarlet of a bluesman’s fingertips, the clay rusts with blood, as if the very ground itself bleeds this music. To lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar, all the earth and sea and sky produced the record, elemental to the last.
The record only trembles at “Embrace Another Fall” and “Somebody There” but nothing feels wrong with the former’s dirge and the latter’s punchiness. (“Somebody There”, as Murdoc Niccals would say, serves as a “very genuine pop moment.”*) Both showcase a finality to their Side. “Embrace Another Fall” leaves listeners in the depths of despair only to be shocked back to life with “Turn It Up.” So too does “Somebody There” never beget a musical, it denotes a time to rest and recharge before a harrowing and satisfying ultimate Side C.
For most lovers of Percy Plant, this record can be conflated with his career path since the loss of his best friend, John Henry Bonham. There seems very little reason not to—if Bonham was a beating heart ripped from the core of a band, then it is only natural that Plant was very tender in dealing with the gaping crevice since. But Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters are living proof to the value in musical exploration, in studying elements outside of the conventional Western then finding the harmonics between them.
Full, earthy, warm, cold, gusting, soothing, this record is all the journeys of a Viking who survived, written into a succinct 49-minute saga.
Album Artist: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
Label: Nonesuch/ Warner
Genre: Psychedelic Folk, Worldbeat
- “Little Maggie”
- “Pocketful of Golden”
- “Embrace Another Fall”
- “Turn It Up”
- “A Stolen Kiss”
- “Somebody There”
- “Poor Howard”
- “House of Love”
- “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)
- “Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)
*Addendum: This was written in early, early 2018 and I have since disavowed pop as a genre in near totality