After the 1980 death of John Bonham brought Led Zeppelin to a crashing halt, Robert Plant honored his band’s legacy by letting go of it. After all, the ultimate way to respect what Zeppelin accomplished—and Bonham’s crucial, inimitable contributions to it—was to lay the band to rest, and make no attempts to recapture their uncommon alchemy and ungodly roar with some ringer. (And when you consider The Who’s middling post-Keith Moon albums from the early ‘80s, who could blame him.) So on his first couple of solo records, Plant remodeled himself for the ‘80s, the shirtless golden god of old reborn as a suave, tidily coiffed, synth-pop sophisticate, leaving the blooze-metal regurgitation to the Whitesnakes and Kingdom Comes of the world. But by 1987’s Now and Zen, the specter of Plant’s former band had become unavoidable—not only did Jimmy Page guest on the hot-rod-revving single “Tall Cool One,” the song climaxed with a barrage of Zeppelin samples. And through 1990’s Manic Nirvana and 1993’s Fate of Nations, Plant tried to put a modernist spin on Zeppelinesque bombast, before just saying “fuck it” and hooking up with Page for a reunion that yielded an MTV Unplugged special and an album of new originals, 1998’s Steve Albini-produced Walking Into Clarksdale.
But while he spent the first two decades of his solo career running away from his musical legacy and then gradually inching back toward it, Plant has spent the 21st century establishing a new one. Starting with 2002’s Dreamland, Plant has seemed less like a solo artist fronting hired guns who are not Led Zeppelin, and more like a co-pilot taking direction from an amorphous cast of intriguing collaborators, including bluegrass queen Alison Krauss (his partner on 2007’s Grammy Award-winning Raising Sand) and folk-rock veteran Patti Griffin (with whom he communed—professionally and, for a time, romantically—on 2010’s Cajun-cooked Band of Joy). And then there’s his recurring backing band the Sensational Space Shifters (formerly Strange Sensation), an exploratory, stylistically dextrous ensemble centered around guitarists Justin Adams (who’s played with Jah Wobble and Brian Eno) and Liam Tyson (formerly of Britpop chancers Cast), bassist Bill Fuller (also of Geoff Barrow’s Krautrockin’ trio Beak), and a pair of Portishead associates, John Baggot (synths) and Clive Deamer (drums).
Collectively, these musicians have encouraged Plant to dig deeper into Zeppelin’s roots—American blues, British folk, Middle Eastern textures—but instead of blowing them up to into a proto-metal pomp, they throw them into a frying pan and melt them down into a mercurial elixir that’s reformulated in fascinating ways. That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally get the Led out—the 2005 track “Tin Pan Alley” may be steeped in eerie Radiohead-esque atmospherics, but it eventually explodes into a Viking wail that echoes back to “Immigrant Song.” However, for the most part, Plant is entirely at home in his lower register, turning in some of the most graceful, beautifully understated performances of his career on the piano ballad “A Stolen Kiss” and the jangle-pop gem “House of Love.” And we’ve seen greater evidence of the ravenous record collector who’s fond of chatting up his current musical obsessions in interviews. Plant’s post-millennial catalog is loaded with exceptional covers, from an apocalyptic interpretation of the traditional gospel spiritual “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” to the dreamy drift through Low’s “Silver Rider” to a reverential reading of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” that suggests Plant is well familiar with This Mortal Coil’s definitive version.
The shadow of Led Zeppelin will forever loom large over Plant’s career, and so long as Plant, Page, and John Paul Jones are all still alive, murmurs of a reunion will refuse to die. But as Plant sets out for another voyage with the Sensational Space Shifters on his new album Carry Fire, let’s celebrate the 21st-century renaissance of an artist who should be regarded alongside Bowie, Peter Gabriel, and Neil Young as one of the most restlessly adventurous artists of his generation.