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Revisit: Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell/Welcome to the Neighborhood

Revisit: Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell/Welcome to the Neighborhood

Back Into Hell is as lurid and preposterous an album as its predecessor—sometimes even more so.

Bat Out of Hell, the 1977 debut by singer Meat Loaf and composer Jim Steinman, was the kind of project that could only have emerged in the late ‘70s. A pop-operatic fever dream seemingly fueled by equal parts cocaine and hubris, Bat upped the bombastic ante on Born to Run-era Springsteen and “Bohemian Rhapsody”-era Queen, making even the sonic excesses of a Bob Ezrin production seem minimalist by comparison. It was an affront to good sense and good taste, savaged by “serious” critics even as it sold a ridiculous number of copies. It was a masterpiece.

By the same token, Bat’s belated sequel—1993’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell—feels like a product of its own time: the early ‘90s, when middle-aged rock acts from the Rolling Stones to the Eagles emerged from the inhospitable wilds of the previous decade to revisit past glories for nostalgia-hungry audiences. Yet while Bat II shares a backward-looking sensibility with contemporary sequel-albums like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, it also sets itself apart with its sheer audacity. Far from sanding away the rough edges of the Bat Out of Hell formula, Back Into Hell is as lurid and preposterous an album as its predecessor—sometimes even more so.

For evidence, one need look no further than Bat II’s opening track and biggest hit, the deathless adult contemporary ballad “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Stretching to a grandiose 12 minutes in the album version, the song presents a kind of capsule summary of the original Bat Out of Hell: from the lengthy motorcycle-revving introduction to the coda, where Meat Loaf and guest Lorraine Crosby channel his dialogic duet with Ellen Foley from “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” More than any other track, “I’d Do Anything for Love” justifies the notion of a Bat sequel; it’s the first album turned up to 11 and unleashed on a market primed for its excess by 10 years of ensuing Steinman productions like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Steinman raids his back catalog even more literally for “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” and “Out of the Frying Pan (And Into the Fire),” both of which hail from the composer’s 1981 solo album Bad for Good. Meat’s versions predictably put the originals to shame, his formidable pipes making Steinman’s recordings sound like demo guide vocals. Also reworked from Bad for Good is “Wasted Youth,” originally titled “Love and Death and an American Guitar”: a reprise of the theatrical introduction from “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” that sounds like the product of an unholy union between Jim Morrison and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Along with these “director’s cut” versions of older tracks are new songs that, even more than is typical in Steinman’s oeuvre, teeter precariously on the edge of self-parody. Bat Out of Hell isn’t for everyone in the best of times; but hearing Meat Loaf sententiously sing the automobile side mirror safety warning on the 10-minute-long “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer than They Are” is likely to test the resolve of even the most committed apologist.

Still, like its predecessor, Back Into Hell overcomes rational critique through sheer aesthetic will to power. Its commitment to excess, from the CD-filling 75-minute runtime to the laboriousness of the metaphors in tracks like “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back,” is awe-inspiring. Needless to say, it also sold a ridiculous number of copies.

Less successful, both artistically and commercially, was Meat Loaf’s largely Steinman-less 1995 follow-up Welcome to the Neighborhood. Like on Back Into Hell, the first track sets the tone, and in this case the tone is an odd mix: “When the Rubber Meets the Road,” written by Meat’s longtime collaborators Paul Jacobs and Sarah Durkee, opens with a Steinman-aping piano line and some cinematic sound effects before settling awkwardly into a workmanlike hard rock riff. For the rest of the album, Welcome to the Neighborhood can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The Diane Warren-penned lead single “I’d Lie for You (And That’s the Truth)” is little more than an ostentatious wink in the direction of “I’d Do Anything for Love,” right down to the thinly-veiled quote of the other song’s melody in its opening piano part. But “Runnin’ for the Red Light (I Gotta Life)” could almost be a Sammy Hagar song—and in fact, the Red Rocker himself makes an appearance later on the album, lending vocals to the similarly undistinguished “Amnesty Is Granted.”

If Welcome to the Neighborhood was Meat Loaf’s attempt to break out of Jim Steinman’s shadow, it was an inherently flawed one. The singer’s operatic range is wasted on the bland rockers; and while Steinman’s production touch is absent, his songs “Original Sin” and “Left in the Dark”—the latter yet another refugee from Bad for Good—stand easily among the album’s highlights. Warren’s contributions, meanwhile, unintentionally highlight what makes Steinman’s songcraft interesting: “I’d Lie for You,” “Not a Dry Eye in the House” and “If This is the Last Kiss (Let’s Make It Last All Night)” are decent enough entries in the bombastic soft rock genre, but they lack the uniquely, well, batshit qualities that Steinman brings to the table.

It should thus come as little surprise that another 11 years after Welcome to the Neighborhood, Meat returned to the Bat well with Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose. But here, too, Steinman’s absence is felt: his contributions, making up only half of the track listing, are cobbled together from other projects, with both Warren and Desmond Child filling in the gaps. Bat II remains for all intents and purposes the Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman partnership’s final masterpiece: a big, beautiful self-indulgent mess of an album, unlikely to be replicated again. And really, that’s just as well; for as much sense as Bat Out of Hell made in both the late ‘70s and the early ‘90s, it makes significantly less sense now, when even an erstwhile Steinman disciple like Lady Gaga has opted to tone things down. That’s one thing Bat, and especially its sequel, was never willing to do; but if sledgehammer-like unsubtlety is to be Meat Loaf’s legacy, then there are a lot worse ways to be remembered.

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