If I say Robert Plant’s new songs sound ”interesting,” you might think I’m damning them with very faint praise. I’m not; things are trickier than that. Manic Nirvana starts with a guaranteed giant radio hit, ”Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes on You),” a number that rushes by with the punch of a teen’s stripped-down hot rod. But it also has the savvy and emotional strength you’d expect from an adult.
Plant sings it in a voice that’s part pouting Elvis and part injured scream. The words spill out in a classic ’50s Elvis rockabilly rhythm. The music, meanwhile, is an up-to-date blend of a dance beat with the heft of heavy metal guitars.
The entire album mixes styles like that. A song tantalizingly called ”S S S & Q” — meaning ”soak, shake, splash, and quake” — has a rap interlude and what I’d swear were samples of horn and guitar licks taken from James Brown. Jump to ”Tie Dye on the Highway” and — while the lyrics speak of beautiful colors filling the air — you’re back in the psychedelic ’60s, maybe with the Beatles (though you’re still propelled by that hurtling ’90s beat). There’s even a cover of a bouncy 1961 Kenny Dino hit, ”Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” complete with what fine print in the CD booklet describes as ”unavoidable” surface noise. It’s unavoidable because Plant, gritty explorer that he is, sampled the bass drum sound of the song directly from his scratchy old 45.
This is fascinating music, far more dense (and far less pop) than Plant’s 1988 album, Now and Zen. Plant clearly is doing much more than coasting on the reputation he made as lead singer with Led Zeppelin.
But what’s he trying to say? Most of the time you can’t understand the words he sings. From what you can catch, and certainly from the tone of Plant’s voice, you might guess he’s spinning through these songs in a state of emotional frustration mixed with sexual frenzy. Lyrics specially supplied by his record company (they’re not included with the album) didn’t reveal much more. You listen over and over, picking your way through the musical maze. Standing out from the frenzy are striking details — abrupt vocal and instrumental kinks — and stretches of unexpected calm. Plant, in effect, is working out his thoughts in music, not words. That makes his album enigmatic. But you never doubt that whatever he’s searching for, it’s real. B+