Friday, October 30, 2015

Discography: Meat Loaf

Few artists who have endured as long as Meat Loaf still exist in a world where they are usually perceived as guilty pleasures. For nearly forty years now, the big man has been playing his own brand of music, and despite the sales and longevity, few people don't still give a nod and wink when mentioning their affection for his  over-the-top presentation.

I am one of those few who feel no compulsion to qualify my appreciation of Meat Loaf, and all his music (in equal measure with Jim Steinman) has meant to me over the years. "Bat Out Of Hell II" was the first album I ever owned, and for over twenty years now Meat Loaf has been an integral part of who I am as a music fan. As the wait for the promised new album continues on, I hereby embark on running through Meat Loaf's discography, to once again let the cream separate from the milk.

And lest you think my aforementioned fanhood will preclude this from being entirely honest, I assure you I pull no punches. Let's begin:

Bat out Of Hell (1977)

Nearly four decades after its release, there still isn't anything, aside from Meat Loaf's own career, that sounds like "Bat Out Of Hell". Jim Steinman's vision and voice is one of a kind, and it resulted in an album that is going to be timeless. There's not much that can be said about the album that hasn't been already, but what amazes me about the record is how, with hindsight guiding us, the transition of these songs from the theater to rock and roll was nearly seamless. I can complain about "All Revved Up (With No Place To Go)" being a bit pedantic, and with "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" dragging on too long in the middle, before getting to the truly classic duet section, but for the first effort of two men who didn't know how to make a record, "Bat Out Of Hell" is still a masterpiece. Being rough around the edges just enhances the 'us against the world' mentality of the music. It's an essential album for a reason.

Dead Ringer (1981)

Four years later, and with voice issues along the way, "Dead Ringer" arrived as the disappointing follow-up to an instant classic. There are certainly good songs on the record ("Read 'Em And Weep" especially), and it shares the spirit of its predecessor, but the problems with it are too great to ignore. First of all, Meat's vocal issues are readily apparent, as his rich voice is reduced to a shrill imitation of himself. But the real problem is with the songs, which aren't as developed as what we heard before, and half of the batch was used for Jim Steinman's superior solo album. As half of that bigger picture, "Dead Ringer" is good. On it's own, it's nothing worth listening to very often.

Midnight At The Lost And Found (1983), Blind Before I Stop (1986)

Making his first album without Steinman, it became clear that Meat Loaf needed a certain style of song to fit his voice and his persona. These albums are ill-fated records that don't play at all to Meat's strengths. The songwriting doesn't know what to do, and reduces Meat Loaf to a standard pop/rock singer. That was a terrible approach, and neither of the albums rises above the fact that they exist. That are, without doubt, the nadir of Meat Loaf's entire career. Avoid them at all costs.

Bad Attitude (1984)

Sandwiched between those records was "Bad Attitude", which is a surprisingly strong album. With two borrowed Jim Steinman songs, the stage was set for a record better than those that preceded and followed. But as good as those songs are, they alone wouldn't be able to carry an entire album. The songs that come from other sources are just as good. The title track is a strong rocker that features Roger Daltry in a duet, while others like "Cheating In Your Dreams" capture Steinman's feeling without being direct rip-offs. There's no competition; this is by a mile the best Meat Loaf album between the original "Bat" and....

Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1994)

The album that started my love affair with music. With twenty years of consistent listening, I can say with no qualifications that this is better than the original. While that record is the one that will never be forgotten, this is the stronger set of material. Yes, much of the record is recycled from Steinman's other projects, but it's mostly his best material. And considering that no one has ever been able to sell his material like Meat Loaf, it stands to reason that this would be the best thing either of them had been associated with in ages. There's drama, comedy, and every in between here. Not everything works, like the Three Stooges jokes in "Everything Louder Than Everything Else", but the record is so massive and engrossing, that it's easy to forgive the slight missteps on the way to something genius. It's not spoiling anything to say right now that this is the best record of Meat Loaf's career.

Welcome To The Neighborhood (1995)

Introduced with a Diane Warren penned Steinman clone, this album had the good fortune to live up to the hype. That song is an obvious rip-off, but it's so good that the lack of originality doesn't matter. Add in two more of Steinman's recycled gems, and the rest of the album didn't need to do much to make the whole work stand on its own. The back half gets a bit slow and sentimental, but there's a core of singles here that are fantastic work, so this was by no means the disappointment that "Dead Ringer" was following such massive success.

Couldn't Have Said It Better (2003)

Now we get to the odd part of Meat's career. Working without any Steinman songs again, Meat and his team finally found the answer for how to make a record for him. They hired people who understood Meat's sound, recreated it, and did so in the guise of really good songs. The title track is one of the highlights of Meat's entire career, and despite how creepy it is to sing a love song with his own daughter, everything except for the ridiculous pseudo-rap "Do It" is top-notch rock music in the Meat Loaf style. It's an album I still give regular listens to, because it's his most fun record ever. This looked like the beginning of a new era in Meat's career, but capitalism got in the way of that with....

Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose (2006)

Continuing the trilogy, but with questionable involvement from Jim Steinman, this is a strange beast. Half of the record is Steinman's material, and half was contributed by Nikki Sixx, James Michael, and Desmond Child. Where things get truly weird is that Steinman's half is clearly the weaker one. This album resurrects "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" and "Bad For Good", but turns in lesser versions than other artists had done previously, while scraping the bottom of the barrel for songs like "If It Ain't Broke, Break It", which don't deserve to have been recorded. The others' songs fare far better, producing half of the perfect sequel to "Couldn't Have Said It Better". "Blind As A Bat" and "What About Love" are more career highlights, which makes this album tough to grade. It's a good, complicated mess.

Hang Cool Teddy Bear (2010)

And now we get to the truly weird part of Meat's career. This album is, for an unknown reason, a concept album pieced together by myriad songwriters. It doesn't work in that respect at all, so I won't bother judging it as such. The songs are all over the place, with more attitude than ever before, and a duet with Jack Black of all people. That song, and a couple of others, are still fun to listen to, but the album as a whole is underwhelming, and insulting. A song whose hook is supposed to sound like 'lesbian love' is cringe-worthy, and a sixty year old singing the line "I can barely fit my dick in my pants" made me turn off the record. I haven't listened to it in years, and don't plan to return anytime soon. You can easily avoid this one.

Hell In A Handbasket (2012)

The most recent album, and another that was hastily put together to capitalize on whatever attention Meat was getting. Unlike the previous album, Meat got better songs to sing, even if they don't exactly fit the typical Meat Loaf style. "All Of Me", "The Giving Tree", and "Live Or Die" are all great songs, which then get balanced out with a needless cover of the mediocre "California Dreaming", and a closing half-sketch that is barely a song. You can hear how rushed the album was, which is disappointing. With more time, and a better song selection, it had real potential.

And now we turn our attention to the future, where a new, primarily Steinman penned album is on the horizon. At this point, my hopes aren't getting outsized. I'm not sure how much Steinman material is left in the vault that is worth hearing. I'm afraid we're getting to the point of recycling anything that can be found, just to say it's on the record. We shall have to wait and see...

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