CD Review: Meat Loaf’s ‘Hell In A Handbasket’

Legacy’s release this week of  Meat Loaf’s 11th studio album, Hell In A Handbasket, reminds me: I discovered him.

Well, not exactly. That would be some Columbia/Epic A&R guy’s honor. But when no one knew of Meat Loaf beyond grub which went with potatoes, I discovered Meat and former collaborator Jim Steinman for the state of Oklahoma.

Cut to the fall of 1977, when I worked my first full-time entertainment writing job for The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, the state’s largest newspaper. Weeks before its release, I received a vinyl copy of an album whose Rich Corben-painted cover caught my eye with its lurid grandiosity — as did the back cover shot of a big, beefy singer in an open-collar tux and a wiry little piano player and composer. (Oh yeah, and a babe.)

I had to listen. And when I did, I was blown away.

I reviewed Bat Out of Hell for a skeptical readership, raving about its operatic rock ‘n’ roll driven by Steinman and producer Todd Rundgren’s masterful arrangements for Jim’s exquisite melodies.

And then there was fellow Texas boy Michael Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf — the new Pavarotti of rock. This roaring belter was my new hero, a balls-to-the-wall rocker who could wail with the best as on the title track but also croon tenderly for such achingly lovely ballads as Heaven Can Wait and Two Out of  Three Ain’t Bad.

I was hooked — and I was sold. But no one else was — not on my claims alone. An act named Meat Loaf? The greatest rock record of the year? Puh-lease.

I went on to champion their cause by interviewing Meat and Jim by phone from New York, to do an advance story on their record and tour. Then I met them backstage when they hit town for an early show at which the $1 admission, in effect, was meant to “paper” the entire audience.

Get ’em listening, then get them hooked, too, the label reasoned.

After reviewing that show, I was so full-bore behind Meat and company (I still recall helping singer Karla DeVito prep as she preened in a mirror just before showtime) that I was almost a groupie. I loved this act — loved them.

And for once (well, not the only time), my adoration was rewarded.

They became global sensations. And ol’ Brucie was right.

Today,  Bat Out of Hell stands as the fifth biggest-selling album of all time, with 43 million units sold worldwide. Take that, former skeptics.

Though that was then and this is now, it’s also why I can’t carp too much about Meat’s new LP, though I know it sorely lacks what earlier ones had: Jim Steinman’s masterful compositions. So let’s keep it real. What is this record?

Hell In A Handbasket is “the most personal record I’ve ever made,” Meat says, and I can’t dispute that. But “an expression of life’s metaphors,” as the press notes say? What metaphors would those be?

Let’s not get too carried away by what essentially is Meat Loaf recooked, with reliably powerful vocals from the big man and reliably solid backing by his Neverland Express. (Thanks for keeping piano elegance amid wrenching rock, guys.)

Is there nothing new? Not exactly. In fact, there are two forays into incongruous rap, via Chuck D and Lil Jon. Uh, no thanks.

Instead, I can wrap myself comfortably around the more customary rock bombast (All of Me, Stand in the Storm), mixed with engaging balladry (Another Day, Blue Sky). Yet the new material, while lyrically solid, lacks strong melodies and riveting arrangements. Produced by Paul Crook, it’s more workmanlike than worth working up a sweat, though the songs are growing on me with repeated listens.

I did appreciate a cover of one oldie: the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreaming, with added vocals by Patti Russo. It’s faithful yet has a quiet fury — though I’m not sure why Meat picked that song out of the ’60s’ vast goldmine of nuggets.

No, this isn’t a great record. It’s not Bat Out of Hell, but what is? And there’s nothing as incendiary as the final two minutes of I’m Gonna Love Her For Both Of Us, one of rock’s greatest finishing kicks ever, and that’s saying a lot.

But it is Meat — good ol’ Meat — still rockin’ after all these years, still fanning those flames of hellish energy, and still belting with a bravado that posers can only shut up and admire.

Thanks, Meat. I did my part back when, and you’ve held up your end by staying the course. Your voice sounds as good as ever, and you haven’t lost the fire. Aging rockers needn’t fade away, and you aren’t.

God speed — though hopefully heaven, in fact, can wait.

— Bruce Westbrook

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One Response to “CD Review: Meat Loaf’s ‘Hell In A Handbasket’”

  1. Laura Says:

    I could not agree more wholeheartedly! I have loved Meat and Crew for as long as I can recall breathing. I have passed my love of the Great Man to my son (aspiring rock drummer). I dare not think of a world without the possibility of yet another Meat Loaf album to cause my heart to beat ever faster.

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