Robert Plant: “Band of Joy”
Back in their glory days– when they were cranking out albums that all of us, with our 20/20 hindsight, regard as five-star classics– Led Zeppelin couldn’t get much respect from the rock and roll elite. (That line from Almost Famous is right: Rolling Stone trashed everything they ever did.) I blame it on Robert Plant, and his stubborn obsession with mythology; when your lyrics are littered with references to Norse and Welsh mythology, and when your rock and roll epics come with a heavy Tolkien fixation… well, let’s simply say that, when you’re penning a song called “The Battle of Evermore,” relatability is probably not your primary concern.
But Plant is a cagey fellow, and almost twenty years into his solo career he’s still pretty stubborn. He’s dropped the swords-and-sorcerers hangup, and thank God: I never minded it, but it might seem a tad juvenile coming from a man who’s now 62. His love of mythology, however, has never abated, and his music is all the better for it. These days is sourcebook isn’t some dusty tome about Ragnarok, nor his inspiration the hills and valleys of Middle Earth. Now Plant looks to the pages of the American songbook, and to sunswept images of the old West– and he does so to considerably more acclaim that he received as a younger man: Let us not forget that Raising Sand, his album-length duet with Alison Krauss, won an armload of Grammys, and it’s got the sales figures to match.
His latest, Band of Joy, grew out of the seeds sewn with Raising Sand; actually, it began as a straight sequel to that album, but the chemistry with Krauss just wasn’t there this time, so Plant decided to take the project in his own direction, enlisting some Nashville pros to give his stuff just the twang it needed– including Buddy Miller as producer, and Patty Griffin as his vocal foil. But the actual Band of Joy concept goes back to well before Raising Sand— indeed, to before Zeppelin. Band of Joy was the name of a band Plant was in before Zep got together, and though it never went anywhere his memories of it are fond ones. He recalls that, back then, he simply had a boyish enthusiasm about him, his art beholden to nothing more or less than a love of song– of taking words and tunes written by other people and doing them his way, not for the sake of radical reinvention but simply for joyful, spontaneous music-making. And that’s the approach that informs this album, perhaps even more so than on similarly song-oriented projects like Raising Sand and Dreamland: In the singer’s own words, he doesn’t want to break open the door to a song so much as simply shake it open with his hips, and so he takes old chestnuts like “Can’t Buy My Love” and “I’m Falling in Love Again”– ostensibly rockabilly and doo-wop, respectively– and treats them both basically as pop songs. His concern isn’t reworking them– just putting himself into them.
But if Band of Joy has a light-heartedness to its approach, it’s still an album of immense mystique– even darkness– as Plant uses the material (all of it covers, though Plant and Miller get credit for arranging some of the traditional songs here) as a jumping-off point for further adventures in mythology, with a particularly American bent but not exclusively within the realm of “Americana.” That may be the key to unlocking this album: He’s playing with ideas of Americana, but not in a style that could be easily classified as such. He’s doing it Plant-style, which turns out to be more interesting than yet another ol’ Brit making a straight country-Western album. And there’s really no other way to describe songs like “Angel Dance”– a Los Lobos tune played here with currents of Celtic folk melodies running through it– than to compare it to its antecedents in Plant’s recent past, like his dark and death-obsessed blues/Celtic crossovers on Dreamland.
This album is sprightlier than that, generally speaking, but it isn’t without its affectations. Crucially, Buddy Miller keeps this from sounding like a Raising Sand knock-off with Griffin filling in for Krauss, and a lot of that is simply due to the way it’s recorded. T-Bone Burnett kept Sand a sleepy and conservative affair; Band of Joy has its share of rounded edges, and anyone looking for live-from-the-floor Americana grit will be disappointed, but again, anyone looking for Americana grit period is clearly looking for something different than what Plant wanted to make. Miller keeps the album shrouded in a certain dark mystique, with percussion rumbling like ominous thunder where you might expect it to snap; it rarely crashes, and the restraint used here gives the album an oddly nervous edge that underscores the mythic trappings Plant’s taking on.
The two best songs here are both by the slowcore band Low, from their Great Destroyer LP, and both of them showcase exactly what’s great about this album at its best. These are hardly country songs, yet their presence here, and the inflection Plant gives them, make them sound like extensions of the rest of this material’s Americana leanings; Plant’s take on American roots music is as much about the drone as it is the twang, and so these thundering rock epics almost play like mirror-image reversals of the rest of the album’s reworked country and blues. They rock, but in a precise and deliberate way instead of a loose, Led Zeppeliny way. Patty Griffin’s high harmonies– different from anything she’s ever sung before– are incredible grace notes that make the songs stick, and show that though her role is much smaller than Krauss’ was she’s every bit as important to this album’s success. And the two songs nicely merge the various mythic threads running through the rest of this material– the Old West archetypes, the pop-song love lyrics, the themes of redemption and religious liberation that begin to pile up as the album concludes.
Indeed, the final couple of songs are interesting capstones. “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “Even This Shall Pass Away” are both traditional gospel numbers, and both encapsulate religious themes not in a personal sense so much as a cosmic one; the former, as it is played here, almost sounds like the defiant stance of a gunslinger in a shoot-out with the devil himself, praying to Jesus for cover fire. Are sentiments like these supposed to be taken as expressions of Plant’s actual religious beliefs, or simply as his interest in American mythology of another sort? I suspect we’ll never know. Band of Joy holds tightly to its secrets, preferring the allure of mystery as a sort of invitation for our imaginations to run wild. It’s open-ended and exploratory– in other words, Plant once again doing things his way.