Are we at a place, culturally, where we can unanimously agree that Meat Loaf’s 1977 debut, Bat Out Of Hell, is unequivocally awesome?
Sure, it’s theatrical. It’s bombastic. And, perhaps most damningly, it’s awfully cheesy; Meat oversings every ballad, Jim Steinman writes pretentious multi-song suites about his inability to get girls as a teenager, and at first listen, Meat and Steinman seem to be taking everything really, really seriously. But it’s cheese of the most glorious variety; its sincerity (tempered, incidentally, by a winking vein of humor that only becomes apparent after several listens) is contagious, even uplifting at times; allowing yourself to get lost in the folds of its sheer forcefulness is fun in the way that few records are anymore.
The problem with Meat Loaf, unfortunately, is that his fractured personal relationship with songwriter Jim Steinman has led both parties to waste their time doing lesser things. Steinman understands the grand drama that Meat, as both a wild-eyed, intensely theatrical stage performer and as a vivid, powerful vocalist, needs to really click; it’s the reason why one could postulate that the pair’s three Bat Out Of Hell records are the best of either artist’s career. Perhaps it’s unfair to pigeonhole the two as a duo, but such is life.
Much like every other non-Bat album of Meat Loaf’s career, his latest, Hell in a Handbasket, largely suffers from songs that lack the panache of the best Meat Loaf material. This is nothing new for the singer; it’s a microcosm of every between-Bats album of his career. But what’s disappointing about Hell is the way that Meat Loaf settles, comfortably into middle age.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing: after a while, it’s nice to see an aging artist move beyond songs about burning loins and puppy love and getting laid. (Looking at you, Jagger – looking right at you.) But as recently as last year, Meat Loaf was releasing records like Hang Cool Teddy Bear, which wasn’t a good record, but at least it was reasonably lively and ambitious. Hell in a Handbasket is a run-of-the-mill cycle of four-minute rock numbers, and even as Meat gives his all vocally, it feels curiously neutered, like Meat has finally given himself over to the MOR set.
Which isn’t to say that it’s particularly dire: it’s just boring. Bland ballads like “Our Love & Our Souls” and “Another Day” come and go without a second thought. “Stand In the Storm” and “Mad Mad World” long so desperately to be hard-edged stompers like mid-career triumph “Life Is A Lemon and I Want My Money Back” – they traffic in the same “I remain resilient in the face of adversity” and “I simply don’t understand the world today” tropes, respectively – but even as Meat blusters all over the tracks, they remain faceless, songs that easily could have been sung by Tim McGraw or, worse, Nickelback, with little tweaking. Both tracks feature rapper cameos, too – Chuck D embarrasses himself on “Mad Mad World”, and Lil’ Jon would be embarrassed if he had an ounce of shame on “Storm” – and it speaks to the ho-hum nature of the record that these rap cameos go by largely unnoticed. For the most part, Hell is a nondescript trip through the bland landscape of elevator-rock.
Sure, there are standouts. Once again, in-demand songwriter Bleu (who spoke to us about this track a while back) knocks one out of the part – his “Fall From Grace” functions as a wonderful power ballad, full of awe and majesty, bolstered by a lovely Meat Loaf lead vocal and a gorgeous melody. (Not coincidentally, it sounds like the sort of resplendent power-pop that made Bleu’s own Redhead album sound so vibrant.) Even as the instrumental for “40 Days” sounds disturbingly similar to “Before He Cheats”, Meat’s powerful tenor in the soaring, apocalyptic chorus ties the whole thing together nicely. Optimistic, acoustic-based closer “Blue Sky” dovetails with some stunning harmonic work from Meat’s studio vocalists, and a dramatic, murder-ballad take on The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” is simply – much like a lot of Meat’s best work, really – too silly not to work.
Which is all fine. I mean, most of Hell in a Handbasket is fine. But when Meat isn’t being served with excellent songs, Hell in a Handbasket offers nothing to latch onto; it’s never as gripping or as go-for-broke bombastic as you wish it was. When it is, as on “Fall From Grace”, it’s nice to see that Meat still has the vocal chops to pilot a great hook directly into the stratosphere; unfortunately, these moments also throw the album’s myriad weaknesses into stark contrast.
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