Still time to,take chances Singer Robert Plant dares to be different on 'Fate of Nations'

May 25, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

If ever a rocker had the right to rest on his laurels and profit

from his reputation, it's Robert Plant.

His work with Led Zeppelin established him as one of the most imitated voices in hard rock, while his solo recordings have run the gamut from doo-wop tributes to sample-heavy techno rock. Given the breadth and range of his accomplishments, you might think that Plant would finally be ready to kick back and coast. But only if you didn't know him very well.

Indeed, Plant's latest album, the just-released "Fate of Nations" (it arrives in record stores today), is in some respects even more daring than his last few efforts. In addition to an unusual cast of collaborators -- the album includes guest appearances by guitarist Richard Thompson, Clannad vocalist Maire Brennan and classical violinist Nigel Kennedy -- the album finds him breaking new ground stylistically, as he flirts with folk on "If I Were a Carpenter," soul on "Great Spirit" and Celtic rock in "Come Into My Life."

"I think the whole record is a small catalog of first-time events for me," Plant says over the phone from Cologne, Germany. "I jump around a lot, but I wanted to try and do some stuff I haven't done before -- just to see whether I could do these things.

"You'll find that on 'Great Spirit' and 'Come Into My Life,' there are attempts at vocal styles that I've never tried before. The thing is, if I make music which moves through different attitudes and influences, from North African music to Chicago blues to Celtic meanderings, then I might actually see if I could sing a little bit like that."

"Fate of Nations" finds Plant changing his attitude as well as his vocal approach, though. For unlike its predecessor, the antic, edgy "Manic Nirvana," this album seems peaceful, reflective and happy -- as if Plant had somehow shifted his emotional focus between albums.

"There was a lot of anxiety on the last album," he says. "I was kind of in between so many facets of my life. If one or two of them had been constant, it might have helped a little bit. But that doesn't mean to say that you can't make interesting music when you're riding some silver surfboard across everybody's brows.

"But yeah, I am happy. And I feel good. I feel a combination of new strength and more conviction, and I guess the way that we've crafted these songs gives them more of a sublime feel. It's the best thing that I've done ever, really, since tinkling with 'Gallows Pole' and 'The Ballad of Evermore,' back in '72-3. It's gotthat kind of timeless, Welsh border, smoky fireplaces [feel]."

Plant says that he began moving toward this eclectic, organic sound after finishing the "Manic Nirvana" tour. Tired of the hard-and-loud sound of bands like Big Black and Soundgarden -- "What you Americans call the cutting edge," he says, laughing, "which is, basically, just another Black Sabbath rerun" -- he turned instead to older, softer music.

"I started going back to the stuff that promised me something way back when I was a kid," he says. "Where I was being promised something better. And I realized that music had played a part in some kind of social cohesion, something that drew people together under the banner of music, rather than just a lot of posing and guys with tight jeans."

To his credit, Plant is well past the posing-in-tight-jeans point of his career. In fact, he studiously avoids most of the obvious trappings of pop stardom, coming across less as a "rock god" than as someone who remains just as excited by the music as most of the fans.

"Yeah, there are ways of inflating your ego, and I've chosen to avoid the most obvious ones, to avoid bathing in permanent glory," he says. "And also, the kind of work ethic of where I'm at now means I've got lots to do, which doesn't give me time to actually become too much of the rock star. I mean, I know how to play the game, but I can sell the patent."

Then again, he's told, whether or not he sells the patent, there are still plenty of bands who seem to have licensed it.

"And how are they doing on Geffen?" he responds, laughing.

Geffen records, of course, is the home of Coverdale/Page, the pointedly Zeppelinesque combo whose singer Plant has derided "David Cover-version." Plant is by this point fairly bored with the subject -- he gets asked about Coverdale/Page "every time, and only on the last question" -- but warms to the related issue of musical experimentation.

As Plant has maintained all along, what made Led Zeppelin great was the band's willingness to take chances. But most successful hard rock outfits seem loath to explore new musical territory. "Well, you know why," he says. "It's either because they've got no brains, or they play it safe, or whatever contingency plans they've got don't include moving around that much.

"Maybe in real terms, it's safer to maintain a stadium rock persona by being dull and boring."

L And dull and boring is something Robert Plant refuses to be.

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