By now, Plant's voice had become an instrument of breathy intimacy.
Barney Hoskyns 2010-09-07
Robert Plant entered the new millennium with an album that looked defiantly backward – not to Led Zeppelin, mind you, but to a round-up of his personal musical heroes. The grunge-era Manic Nirvana (1990) and Fate of Nations (1993) had already junked the overegged synth-rock of Plant's 80s albums – while 1995's Unledded reunion with Jimmy Page breathed new life into the Zeppelin catalogue – but Dreamland definitively set Sir Percival on the Americana-rooted course he has steered ever since.
There was a distant clue in Fate of Nations' If I Were a Carpenter. Nine years on from that Tim Hardin cover, Plant opted to pay homage to such American cult figures as Tim Rose (Morning Dew), Tim Buckley (Song to the Siren), Moby Grape's Skip Spence (Skip's Song), and the Youngbloods' Jesse Colin Young (Darkness, Darkness). Additionally, he tipped a wink to Dylan (Desire's One More Cup of Coffee) and – on a spooky, jagged cover of Hey Joe – to both Hendrix and Love's Arthur Lee.
Plant also parted ways with primary collaborator Phil Johnstone, creating a more organic feel around guitarist Justin Adams and bassist Charlie Jones. From the raggedly exciting opener – a Hurdy-Gurdy-propelled update of Bukka White's I Believe I'm Fixin' to Die that sounds more like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds than like Now & Zen – Dreamland is instantly rough and ready, stripped of studio sheen. The mournful take on Morning Dew is built on Adams' spare backwards guitar and John Baggott's murky electric piano; Song to the Siren is more minimal still, but no less affecting than the version by This Mortal Coil. Darkness, Darkness becomes a statement of haunting despair. Skip's Song packs the euphoric punch that made a giant Moby Grape fan of Plant back in 1967.
Most striking is the change in Plant's voice. Close-miked, it has become an instrument of breathy intimacy – middle-aged, yes, but in its serene way as powerful as his full-throttle shrieking in days of old.
Interspersed with Dreamland's covers are several originals written by Plant with Adams, Jones, Baggott, drummer Clive Deamer, and former Cure guitarist Porl Thompson. Win My Train Home (If I Ever Get Lucky) is an African blues that incorporates elements of songs by Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and anticipates Adams' production stints with the Malian troupe Tinariwen. Last Time I Saw Her is an outbreak of freak-funk, complete with unhinged synth oscillations and manic wah-wah guitar. Red Dress is raw, slide-slashed blues, Dirt in a Hole a powerfully driving finale.