After nearly 45 years in the music business—from playing God of Rock along with Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin to winning Album of the Year for Raising Sand, his duet album with Alison Krauss, in 2007—what’s left for Robert Plant to do?
Going back to the beginning of his career and choosing the name of his very first group, Band of Joy (which also featured John Bonham), as the title of his new album, Plant delivers a satisfyingly varied mix of mostly cover songs ranging from old-timey, countrified rock and traditional material to ’60s pop-rock and other, more Zeppelin-esque tunes. Recorded in Nashville, Band of Joy features a stellar lineup of musicians, including guitarist Buddy Miller—who also co-produced the album—as well as Patty Griffin on vocals; Byron House on bass; Darrell Scott on mandolin, pedal, lap steel, and banjo; and Marco Giovino on percussion.
The songs on Band of Joy that feature Griffin achieve a sound that is comparable to the Plant/Krauss duets on Raising Sand. Plant’s rock edge is coupled nicely with Griffin’s folk-tinged voice, especially in “Harm’s Swift Way.” In this sweet yet mournful soft-rock tune, Plant thinks back on a woman he left behind. He promises to hold on to her in memory when he sings: “Try oh try to cling to her / Until she becomes everlasting.” But “If she ever leaves / I’ll strangle upon the sorrow.” Though it’s not clear how much Plant relates to these lyrics in their most literal sense, their sentiment, and the song’s reflective, peaceful nature, seem perfectly appropriate for someone nearing the end an extensive career.
A couple of songs on Band of Joy, namely “Falling in Love Again” and “House of Cards,” feature full, harmonious backing vocals from nearly everyone in Plant’s multi-talented band, including the deeply guttural Buddy Miller and the folk-leaning Griffin. With this rich backing behind him, Plant is able to be the natural leader that we know him to be, separating himself from the rest with a soulful but still rock-flavored tone that constantly reaches new heights. “House of Cards” also features beautiful mandolin playing from Mr. Darrell Scott, recalling Zeppelin’s roots-y “Going to California.” The song may not be quite as rocking as anything else on the monumental Led Zeppelin IV, but in the way it swells and recedes it bears Plant’s unmistakeable fingerprints.
Though the cover versions that fill most of Band of Joy are all fairly true to the originals, Plant does put his own spin on them. “Silver Rider” and “Monkey,” both originally by the slowcore Sup Pop band Low, stay musically similar, but add Plant’s distinctive vocals. “Silver Rider” is deep and slow-burning as it drifts into the ether. “Monkey,” a clear standout on the album, is slowed down even more, sounding incredibly dark, deviant, and tense.
Although the drugs are now safely quarantined in Plant’s past, the sex and rock ’n’ roll seem very much alive. Plant’s voice, no matter what he’s singing, always has a distinctly erotic edge to it. Every song on Band of Joy, from the opener, “Angel Dance” (“Tomorrow will bring us a brand new day / We can run and play”), to the traditional tune “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” (in an eerie, dark rearrangement), carries with it a warm sexuality.
Although his name will forever be practically synonymous with ’70s arena rock, Plant seems eager to add a little bit of folk, country, and western twang to the music on Band of Joy, as he did with Raising Sand. The coy, suspenseful “Central Two-O-Nine” evokes the Wild West, with plucky banjos and deep, strumming bass. “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday,” another traditional number, follows in the same banjo-laced country-and-western vein.
While Plant has clearly moved on from the shrieks of “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love,” his voice is as strong as ever as he works his way through the diverse collection of tunes on Band of Joy. While calling on a variety of genres that no one could have possibly associated him with 35 years ago—country and western, soft rock, traditional folk songs, slowcore—he still manages to sound like the Robert Plant of “Living Loving Maid” and “Misty Mountain Hop.”
After finishing a summer-long U.S. tour to promote the album, Plant heads to Europe this fall. For more information, visit his website at robertplant.com.