Robert Plant has conducted himself with more integrity and class than just about any other legacy rock star around. Regularly fending off obscenely lucrative offers for a Led Zeppelin reunion, he forges his own path, putting out solo albums at a fairly prolific pace. He struck gold a decade ago with Raising Sand, his collaboration with Alison Krauss, while 2010's Band of Gold was another winner that featured fresh takes on outside material.
Judged by those high standards, new album Carry Fire is a slight disappointment. Yes, Plant's distinctive voice sounds as virile and expressive as ever, while the instrumental contributions of his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, are first-class; the violin, cello and world music instruments are employed judiciously in creating interesting soundscapes. But the material here favours mood over melody, and you're unlikely to find yourself singing these tunes in the shower.
The folk and Middle Eastern elements often found in both Zeppelin and Plant's solo work are again in evidence here, as on the oud-driven title track. Lyrically, he explores both the political ("New World" and "Carving Up the World Again," which references "a whole lot of posture, very little sense") and the personal, baring his heart with lines like "I'll carry fire for you, here in my naked hands" ("Carry Fire"). He enlists fellow rock veteran Chrissie Hynde for their reinterpretation of the '50s classic "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," but the extravagant production doesn't really suit such a pretty and simple song; far better is the tender and poetic "Dance With You," and the propulsive "Bones of a Saint."
There is certainly plenty here to explore and enjoy on Carry Fire, but a sparser and more melodic approach next time out would be welcome. (Nonesuch)