Robert Plant opens Carry Fire with "The May Queen," a song that can't help but stir up memories of "Stairway to Heaven," the most mystical number Led Zeppelin ever cut. "The May Queen" doesn't sound a thing like "Stairway to Heaven," which is deliberate. As Plant murmurs about "the dimming of his light," the churning folk-rock -- a rootless, restless gypsy hybrid of American, English, and Middle East traditions -- comes to crest upon a violin line that appears to quote "Prodigal Son," a gospel blues attributed to Robert Wilkins. It's hard not to read this as a sly wink to the audience, a suggestion that Plant, after years of rambling, has returned to where he belongs. Such suspicions are underscored by the fact that Carry Fire is Plant's first album in over a decade where he's retained the same supporting crew, recording once again with the Sensational Space Shifters, the same outfit who backed him on lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar. Where that 2014 record carried a cataclysmic undercurrent -- his return to England bore the full weight of mortality -- Carry Fire is so casual it can even get loud. Guitars ricochet throughout "New World," a slice of hard mysticism that evokes the spacier elements of Zeppelin even as it consciously chooses the spiritual over the carnal. Despite Plant's clear favor of the heart and head over primal pleasures, Carry Fire retains a visceral kick, because the singer/songwriter understands the transportive power of music, how the old can seem new when seen with a different light. Take "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," an obscure 45 from the obscure rockabilly singer Ersel Hickey: It was written and recorded in 1958 and cut a decade later by the Beach Boys, but here it sounds as eternal as a mountain spring, a song that was never composed, but rather always existed. Plant surrounds "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" with songs that are equally ageless: Their bones feel old yet the sound is fresh, even if the record makes no concessions to modernity. Carry Fire also doesn't concede to how Plant once wielded tradition as a bludgeon, since every moment of the album is underplayed. Subtlety, once a word never associated with Plant, is now his greatest strength, and Carry Fire carries a real, substantial difference from lullaby, which gained power from its moodiness. Here, Plant doesn't seem quite so melancholy. The very richness of the music bears the weight of a long, unpredictable life, but the album's tenor -- not to mention the songs themselves -- suggests a boundless possibility, and that's why Carry Fire is an album of hope: Plant wears his years proudly, yet he's not concerned with any moment other than the present.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine