Robert Plant could have spent Feb. 12 soaking up a whole lotta love. It was the eve of the Grammy Awards and, 25 years after his legendary hard-rock band split up, Led Zeppelin was at last being honored with a statuette for lifetime achievement. Plant's surviving bandmates guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist–keyboardist John Paul Jones turned up crisply suited at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. But former frontman Plant didn't show; he was 9,000 km away, getting ready for a tsunami benefit gig in Bristol, England. He sent along a video greeting instead. His snub clearly hurt Page, who said: "It wouldn't have taken much just to pop over here and meet everybody, would it, really?"
Two months later, Plant is still unapologetic. "It made more sense to join hands with proactive people than to go along and be fêted at the Grammys," says Plant, 56, clasping a mug of red lentil soup in a north London gastro-pub. It's hard to blame him; after all, nothing says "career over" like a lifetime achievement award. And for possibly the first time in his meandering, often mediocre solo career, Plant has no need to dwell on Zeppelin's dancing days. Next week, his eighth and best solo album, Mighty Rearranger, debuts. His finest work since Led Zeppelin's 1975 masterpiece Physical Graffiti, it draws on diverse influences from West Coast psychedelia to Moroccan trance music to form a collection of songs that sound gloriously raw, relevant and, most importantly, rocking.
Plant is the first to admit that he has "wasted a lot of time." In the 1980s, he desperately tried to distance himself from the Zeppelin legend and unfortunately succeeded, churning out album after forgettable album of turgid, synth-heavy pop. A foray into R&B covers with a band called The Honeydrippers brought him some commercial success, but little creative joy. In the mid-'90s, he reunited with Page. The duo's live shows frequently revisited Zeppelin's Valhalla heights, but their formulaic studio album, 1998's Walking Into Clarksdale, lumbered along like a mastodon. "We were always dogged by the past," admits Plant. "It's better like this, apart. It gives me more space to breathe."
For Plant, divorce has finally paid off. Using a group of seasoned session musicians called The Strange Sensation, Plant has crafted an album that nods at Led Zeppelin's greatness while not being overpowered by it. "There's no point in talking about the dim past," he boasts, "because this album really does say, 'Good morning.'" Shine It All Around, the first single from Mighty Rearranger, kicks off with a steady drumbeat that echoes the opening bars of Zeppelin's colossal When The Levee Breaks. But then the track quickly mutates into a soaring, optimistic epic as Plant declares, "These are the times of my life/ Bright and strong and golden."
He's right, and the album shines brightest when Plant mixes his two musical loves, Western rock and third-world rhythms. Takamba (a word the Tuareg tribe use to describe a camel's gait) splices hypnotic African grooves with crashing drums. He can even inject a dose of politics: Freedom Fries, a cutting attack on the Bush presidency, welds an offbeat guitar lick to the furious pounding of a Moroccan bendir drum. But call it world music at your peril; Mighty Rearranger is a million miles away from Paul Simon's reverential take on African sounds. "The whole coffee-table aspect of listening to world music is bulls__t," the singer says with a laugh. "We've created a new hybrid, where instead of visiting the music with respect, we steal it and hit it with big hammers until it's a new mélange of rock and world rhythm."
Plant doesn't just want to smash the boundaries of musical genre; he also wants to confront the idea that an ageing rock star has nothing new to sing. "I may be getting on a bit, but I'm a very inquisitive guy," he says. "And now I'm doing something that I didn't know I was capable of." On the track Tin Pan Valley an electrifying mix of synth pulses, slide guitar and some good old heavy-metal thunder he rails against musicians who "live on former glory," "flirt with cabaret" and "fake the rebel yell." A shot across the bow at Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger? Plant will only hint that Tin Pan Valley is about "where I might have gone if I picked up too many gongs."
Now the craggy-faced star just has to convince a cynical public that his songs don't remain the same. "When people open a magazine, they just see a haggard old rock god," he willingly admits. "But it's taken a long time to get the music like this. I just want people to see that I've finally gone somewhere surprising."