Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robert Plant and the ceaseless search for new sounds

A quick scan around today’s musical landscape doesn’t reveal too many sexagenarians making vibrant, culturally significant music. All told, you can probably count them out on two hands. One figure that is undoubtedly deserving of a digit is former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. But, while other rockers from his generation—your Neil Youngs, your Bob Dylans, your Bruce Springsteens—are notably lauded for their latter-day work, Plant’s contributions don’t seem to get the same amount of appreciation.

Since 2002, Plant has released a total of four solo studio records, each of which was nominated for at least two Grammys. Raising Sand, his 2007 collaboration with Americana singer Alison Krauss, swept the award show, taking home five golden gramophones including the coveted Album Of The Year prize. These facts have been all but lost in the Plant narrative, given the larger context surrounding each of his individual releases.

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Nearly every time Plant produces a new record, something involving Led Zeppelin draws attention away from his efforts. The most notable instance of this came in 2007 when he simultaneously released Raising Sand—without a doubt the most well-received record of his post-Zeppelin career—and reunited with the band for a one-off concert in London. The latter move ignited the music media and notched otherworldly records for ticket demand, but also pushed what he had going on with Krauss and producers T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller to the backburner. Even now, as Plant seeks to release and promote his latest record, Lullaby… And The Ceaseless Roar, Jimmy Page is embarking on a massive reissue of Zeppelin’s entire studio catalog, which has resulted in a considerable amount of friction between the two men as they both hit the promotion circuit.

Plant isn’t blameless for the never-ending cycle of the “will they/won’t they” reunion chatter through the last decade or so, but he’s apparently reached a breaking point in this post-Celebration Day era. For the longest time, as people continued to speculate about the future of Led Zeppelin, he simply refused to issue a categorical denial that the band was done. It was a canny marketing move on his part to keep the public’s attention, but it carried the consequence of overshadowing whatever else he was doing. Evidently, the noise reached an indefinable apex that was no longer worth the aggravation. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that his recent output wouldn’t have received the attention it has without this buzz, but he’s had one hell of an interesting run these past few years.

If there’s one defining trait that the select group of artists who continue to make well-received music well into the twilight of their careers share, it’s a predilection for the mercurial. At this stage, audiences don’t bat an eye when Neil Young records a covers album with Crazy Horse, or works inside a Voice-O-Graph booth with Jack White. People nod approvingly when Bob Dylan deigns to work on a record of unreleased Hank Williams pieces or writes a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic. Audiences have grown to accept that these artists just aren’t interested in doing the same old thing over and over again. In fact, even if they fall on their faces, we’re right there beside them, encouraging them to get back up again.

In recent years, Plant has taken his own mercurial nature to a new degree. Every record, every project, every song is emblematic of his constantly shifting gaze. The problem for him is that, unlike Dylan, Young, or even Paul McCartney, the public at large still wants—and to some extent, expects—him to assume the role of that “golden god” of days long past. For anyone who’s had the good fortune to see him in a live setting, it’s clear he still has some of that in him. But the essence of artistry at his core prevents him from revisiting the person he once was.

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Plant is a wanderer by nature. He’s a modern-day minstrel trekking through the oft-neglected quarters of the world, reveling in the atmosphere of the people and the music he happens to encounter. He is a traveler of both time and space, to be where he has been. And his true gift—beyond his iconic vocal prowess—is for assuming the identity of his surroundings, consuming the culture, and producing a recollection of an era (or a region) both in his own life and outside of it. Looking at it through that lens, his discography bears a stronger resemblance to a travelogue more than anything else, with Northern Africa, India, and Nashville very well represented.

For his most recent work on Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar, Plant returned to the land of his youth, the English countryside near Wales, which no doubt exerts an influence. He also brought his experiences in far-off lands. In between the grooves you’ll find Jamaica, Chicago, Mississippi, and West Africa—every song a memory, either real or imagined. As a piece of art, it’s an expression of where he’s been, and a look inside of who he is in the moment it was made; at the close of the final track, he’s already moved on. But isn’t that what we should expect an artist to do?

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In juxtaposition to the choices he’s made, let’s take a look at the path more frequently traveled. At this point there are literally dozens of outfits that bear a stronger resemblance to corporations than to legitimate music-creating entities. It’s a judgment that wears quite comfortably on a number of legacy acts including Mötley Crüe, The Eagles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, to name a few. But the operative word here is “legacy.” Those artists have essentially traded in their creative inclinations for obscene piles of cash. They’re content to rest on their laurels and reap the benefits.

What keeps Robert Plant out of Led Zeppelin, what keeps him working with musicians half his age or from the disparate corners of the world, what keeps him moving forward, is that he’s simply not done yet. The same can be said for Neil Young, Bob Mould, and even Morrissey, all of whom released their own acclaimed records in the past six months. No one can predict what any of them will ever do next, because they truly have no idea themselves.

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Last month, Robert Plant turned 66 years old. He’s already led one of the most impressive careers in music history. He’s traveled the globe dozens of times over, played in dank clubs, gorgeous amphitheaters, stark deserts, and lush countrysides. He’s made millions of dollars selling millions of records, all while racking up nearly every conceivable accolade imaginable. Yet, here he is, ready to head off on his next adventure. By trusting his instincts—instincts that many might wish he ignored—he may not know where he’s headed, but for him it’s a journey not worth missing.

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