Since the one-off Led Zeppelin reunion show in 2007 Robert Plant has been teasing and frustrating us all, including his former bandmates, on the subject of a more permanent revival of the iconic group. In recent months Plant and Jimmy Page have publicly traded comments on the subject.

For the most part Plant has appeared uninterested in the whole idea, preferring to tour and make music with his own band. But then last year in an interview for Australian 60 Minutes there was a moment that sent the internet into a frenzy. When Tara Brown asked about the possibility of a further reunion, Plant put the ball firmly in court of Page, Jones and Bonham Jr, stating that he had “nothing to do in 2014” and was, by implication, open to the possibility. True to the enigmatic persona that he has built a career on, no-one quite knew what was going through Plant’s head at the time.

But nothing came of this and earlier in the year the singer poured cold water on any speculation, suggesting that there was no chance it was going to happen and that Page (and the rest of us) should just move on.

It is now clear that, contrary to last year’s assertion on Australian TV, Plant has actually been quite busy this year, working with his band The Sensational Spaceshifters to create an accomplished album, lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. It’s a strikingly fresh and original effort that blends elements of blues, world music, electronica, and Celtic and American folk with Plant’s distinctive voice. And despite one or two hints on the album, it finds Plant in completely different territory from the Led Zeppelin days.

Having enjoyed phenomenal success, Plant could now be riding on past glories: on an endless greatest hits tour like so many of his contemporaries. But listening to this new album, his indifference to the Led Zeppelin juggernaut begins to make some sense. At 66 Plant is defiantly refusing to be defined by his past; he is clearly enjoying a period of peak creativity. Plant’s eyes are firmly looking forward, with nothing even remotely retro about this effort.

It’s not that veteran rocker is now distancing himself from his great legacy. It’s just that as a crafter of songs he has new contributions to make. Anyone who saw him when he toured Australia last year will know that roughly half of his live set is still comprised of Led Zeppelin numbers. But even while performing the likes of “Whole Lotta Love”, “Black Dog” and “Heartbreaker”, these are given fresh arrangements to fit with the vibe of his new band.

After serving as Plant’s touring band for a number of years, this is the first time The Sensation Shapeshifters have featured on a recording, and even collaborated here on the songwriting. It seems that they are the catalyst for the creative diversity on the LP, bringing a vitality and a distinctive world music flavour that really works.. The result is Plant’s best work since the Led Zeppelin days.

The album opens with “Little Maggie”, which like so many numbers over Plant’s career, is an update on a traditional tune. It begins in low-key fashion but sets the tone for the rest of the record, effortlessly fusing folk, electronica and world music.

“Pocketful of Golden” is a conventionally structured song that is enlivened by loops and afro-sounds, a feel that is carried across to the following track, “Embrace Another Fall”, the midpoint of which gives us the first taste of heavy guitar on the album.

We get dirty blues on “Turn It Up” before the pensive track, “A Stolen Kiss” showcases Plant’s incredible voice.

“Somebody There” is the only real Zeppelin influenced moment of the record, with musical echoes of “Thank You” and the mid-section of “Stairway to Heaven”, and lyrical imagery that could easily have come from Led Zeppelin IV.

Later in the album, the sparse landscape of “Up On the Hollow Hill (Undertanding Arthur)” brings some muddy, laconic guitar to the fore. The album then closes with its most fun moment, “Arbagen (Maggie’s Baby)”, a trancy afro-beat jam: think electronica meets Youssou N’Dour.

Throughout it all Plant’s voice sounds as good as ever, of itself worth the listen. But in spite of its clunky title, it’s the quality of the songwriting, and the creative fusion that makes this a standout effort. While we might all secretly be hoping for a Led Zeppelin reunion, this is an artistic achievement with a distinctly modern sound that gives justification to Plant’s continuing reluctance.

lullaby … and the Ceaseless Road is out now from Nonesuch / Warner Bros records.

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor

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