Robert Plant's got the believe-I'm-fixin'-to-die, one-more-cup-of-"Hey-Joe," waiting-on-the-last-train-to-Elysium blues. He taps his foot on the station platform, the past spread across his face like a smile. In his mind, everything swirls together, antiquity and the half-cocked, half-remembered 20th century, tenacious legends and minor footnotes: a sonic realm where Big Boy Crudup sets sail with Odysseus, Robert Johnson race-mixes with folkadelic Youngbloods, and summer-of-love casualty Skip Spence trip-toes off into the mists of Le Morte d'Arthur.
Two types of minstrel (fair-haired blackface British bluesboy and the lutes'n'maidens, courtly love kind) converge as one, making the beast with two backs like there's no tomorrow. (And for a singer so obsessively anachronistic, there isn't, only a permanent self-regenerating yester-daze.) It ought to be a cosmic travesty, the worst hangover of a '60s joke with too many punchlines to count, but instead Plant imbues the word "journeyman" with near-mystical tenderness, devotional attention to craft, charming throwaway humility, and the pursuit of form as its own grail.
Plant's Dreamland is exactly that: Kicking off with a graveyard blues freely adapted from an old Bukka White number, the song lunges forward with a jumbled, chimerical earthiness. It's a happy mess of shape-shifting guitar (caterpillar filigrees dissolving into wah-wah delirium), surf-tribal drumming, and the singer's feverishly offhand string of sleep-talking exclamations ("Jesus . . . dying bed . . . home . . . my-my-my-yeah"). What at first seems like a zydeco accordion sample repeats until it sounds more like a Terry Riley organ mantra. Dusty phantasms bubble up from faded memory to frame a landscape of good-humored roadhouse fatalism. Then solid burial ground resolves itself into a "Morning Dew," a wispy bit of antiwar-era ephemera that Plant fills with a glimmering foreboding, which takes us straight back to Donovan's lotus-eating Sunshine Superman ("dedicated to the bearer of the eastern gift"). And Dreamland feels nearer to that kaleidoscopic time-capsule kingdom than practically anything to come down the pike since. Plant's resurrection of such an arch-mythic localethen blithely straddling the enduringly sublime and the endearingly ludicrouslacks only a cover of that album's stairway-to-jive-heaven "Bert's Blues" to complete the fairy-tale circle.
Then again, Donovan never had a country space-case Arabian-scaled blues pastiche like "Win My Train Fare Home" in him, nor could he have taken "Darkness, Darkness" to the incantatory place Plant does here. Fitful Led Zep echoes abound, but aside from the majestically sustained inanity of "Hey Joe" (a veritable Journey to the Center of the Mindless, and no less gripping for that), this is mostly a matter of how parade-float clichés are turned into impressively opaque abstractions: "Crazy little mama," "Pretty little baby/With a red dress on," all as sonorous, cornball-mysterious, and incense-scented as the Latin Mass. Though nothing prepares you for the shocking delicacy he lavishes on Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren," which brings a rapturous, bittersweet erotic meaning to the saying "He sleeps with the fishes."
Dreamland is a culmination for Plant, and a reconciliation of the two sides of his career: the child of the '60s who played lead singer in the El Zeppelin epic, and the stoic, unassuming solo pursuer of small, sharp pleasures and his own moderately eccentric muse. When Plant sings, "Look over yonder to that burying ground," the words sit as comfortably on him as a trench coat on Robert Mitchum. It's a fleeting Late Show flashback, 1950's My Forbidden Past, with a nonsense plot but a perfect mood. In an ornate cemetery on Halloween (apparently paying one's respects is the custom in the bygone New Orleans where the movie is supposed to be set), Mitchum sees Ava Gardner waiting on a bench. He approaches her: "Are you alone?" Her comeback is the stuff a thousand blues are made of: "Aren't we all?"
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