If you’re a Robert Plant fan, you’re probably going to buy this album anyway. Plant, the lead singer and lyricist for the band Led Zeppelin, is a mainstay in the music industry and has built up enough industry cred that he can do whatever the hell he wants. And, at least for his newest solo album, Carry Fire, whatever the hell he wants seems to be a folkish, Americana sound.
This isn’t new ground for him: Plant has previously worked with bluegrass/Americana artist Alison Krauss, and his previous solo albums also had this same sound. This only goes to show how Plant’s made this folky Americana sound his own. Carry Fire is a very chill, very lovely album whose main flaw is that it has a hard time rising from good to great.
There’s not much that stands out on Carry Fire. If I had to pick a highlight, it would be the opening song “The May Queen” which starts off with some amazing guitar that segues into Plant’s folkish, lite Americana vocals, giving us a final product that’s somehow simultaneously piercing and gentle. But then again, there isn’t much that is downright bad.
The weakest song is the title track, “Carry Fire,” a song with such a generically Eastern sound that it reminds you of every other song that’s used that generic, dull ‘Arabian Nights’ sort of soundscape. However, an amazing string section helps lift “Carry Fire” from dull into slightly decent. A lot of the album does sound samey: it’s easy to find yourself listening to it only to notice that a handful of songs have passed by, all in a similar sounding blur. But very few songs on the album sound downright bad. And, though everything is samey, it’s at least an amazingly well crafted and beautifully put together samey.
The vocals are quite understated compared to some of Plant’s previous output: Plant rarely tries to go for high notes or lower notes, instead staying comfortably in his range. But he hits those notes with such precision and puts such emotion in his voice that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the vocals aren’t as adventurous as they could be. Technically, Plant’s vocals are amazing and perfectly on form, dipping and bringing out each line in such a way that benefits the song and draws you in. And it has to be pointed out that Plant is 69 years old and honestly sounds so much better on this record than a lot of other singers his age. He might be playing it safe with regards to the vocals, but even when playing it safe, Plant knows precisely what he’s doing.
The arrangement of the songs and Plant’s vocals expertly hide the fact that the lyrics are fairly simple. The more straight-forward love songs benefit the most from this simplicity whereas the more complex, critical pieces start to falter. The attempt at social critique is appreciated but Plant rarely gets deeper than pointing out the issue, offering not much in the way of nuance or actual commentary. Both “New World” and “Carving Up The World Again…A Wall And Not A Fence” are very surface-level issues of colonialism and neo-colonialism. If you’re looking for insightful commentary, this isn’t it. The songs are charming, but ultimately a bit too shallow.
Carry Fire could have been more. But the fact that it could have been more doesn’t mean that it’s awful. All in all, this is a good album. Plant’s voice pairs wonderfully with the arrangement of the songs and all the instrumentation and arrangement is top notch. Structurally, the songs are a bit weak, but that hardly detracts from the album as a whole. Carry Fire is a wonderful foray into the folk genre from one of rock’s living legends.