Review Summary: A mostly forgotten gem from an unlikely source.
In 1977, Meat Loaf teamed with songwriter Jim Steinman to unleash the most outlandish record to ever top the charts. Bat Out Of Hell was theatrical, juvenile, and stunningly brilliant. Combining Steinman's roots writing musical theater with the rock pomposity provided by producer Todd Rundgren, the album was a one of a kind beast, fusing disparate elements to create something that no one had ever seen before. Bat Out Of Hell was a slow start, rejected by dozens of record labels, financed completely by Rundgren himself. Steinman would later joke "they invented labels just to reject us." After finding a home on a tiny Midwestern label, the album picked up steam as Meat Loaf poured his soul into his performances. Soon, Bat Out Of Hell would be regarded as a classic, selling more than 30 million copies around the world.
Sixteen years later, after suffering through a decade of declining sales and vocal problems, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman got together once again to try to recreate the magic of their partnership. Steinman mined his life's work, picking the best songs that he had written since separating from Meat Loaf, and writing a few new songs to add to the mix. Meat Loaf honed his voice, finding his best vocal form since recording the original Bat Out Of Hell. The result was a sequel, Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell.
Calling back to the sounds of the original, Bat Out Of Hell II opens with the metallic sound of a revving motorcycle, grinding the album out of neutral, preparing it for the musical journey. A lone piano pounds away, thumping a percussive rhythm that sounds impossible for one man to play. Guitars swirl over the top, building the intensity, until the music falls away, leaving only Meat Loaf's plaintive vocal. "And I would do anything for love," he sings, making you believe with the honesty in his voice. For the next ten minutes, Meat Loaf confesses to the listener the limits of his love, as the music ebbs and flows, building to dizzying heights, then stripping itself down to nothing, only to rise again. After his confessions, a female voice answers, pleading with him to give everything he has. Like the song, Meat Loaf has given everything he has to this epic piece of musical mastery. Steinman crafted a rock opera within the confines of one song, going over the top as only he can. Critics be damned, this is his vision. As he once said, "if you don't go over the top, you can't see what's on the other side."
Having run the gamut in the opening song, a lesser album would fall apart, having run out of ideas. Bat Out Of Hell II is only getting started. A slithery guitar riff opens "Life Is A Lemon And I Want My Money Back", the most rock Meat Loaf and Steinman had ever gotten. Meat Loaf thunders his vocal, raging against anything and everything, fully of bitterness and cynicism. The song breaks down into a call and response where Meat Loaf curses himself, God, life, and the hope of the future. With nothing left to believe in besides the music, a guitar cuts through, playing a violent solo as the song marches to its conclusion.
"Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through", a song originally from Steinman's own solo album, settles the pace. Carrying on the theme of music being the only thing left to believe in, it is a cry to the musical Gods, thanking them for the gifts they have been given. Meat Loaf delivers another strong vocal, culminating in a stunning shout to end his musical prayer. Steinman dips into his bag of tricks, infusing the song with everything from a sax solo to slap bass, the textures of music sounding like a note between lovers.
"It Just Won't Quit" and "Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire)", two more refugees from Steinman's earlier works, are a pair of piano-dominated pieces of hypermelody. Steinman throws everything into his songs, filling every inch of the mix with little details, tossing off classic melodies as though he'll never run out. Both are mini-epics, filled to the brim with moments that will stick in the listener's head. From Meat Loaf's howling of a love "cheaper than spit", to the tender tinkling piano figure that opens "Frying Pan", both songs are expertly crafted pieces of progressive pop music.
"Objects In The Read View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are" is the centerpiece of the album, a ten minute epic telling the story of lost life and lost love with a cinematic flair that only Steinman could conjure on record. The song, based in part of Meat Loaf's own experiences, features the most impassioned vocal performance of his career. From plaintive sadness in the verses, to the building intensity that comes with each climax, Meat Loaf's vocals are pitch perfect, singing the song as an actor, and not merely a singer. Few in the realm of pop music can pull off such a feat, and none with the honestly and believability of Meat Loaf. He makes you believe every word is sings, and turns ten minutes into one of the greatest listening experiences possible.
"Wasted Youth" is another throwback to the original Bat Out Of Hell, a spoken word piece delivered by Steinman, setting the tone for the next song. "Everything Louder Than Everything Else" is, on the surface, the most out of place song on the album. Simplistic by Steinman's standards, and littered with juvenile lyrics, the song continues the theme at play of music being the only thing in this life we can depend on. Steinman includes enough melodic inventiveness to keep the song interesting, ultimately reprising the main melody on bagpipes as an outro.
"Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)" is another retooled song from Steinman's past, this time peppered with a horn section that gives the song a sleazy, noir feel. Meat Loaf delivers the song with an appropriately strong vocal, clearly inspired to be singing material of this quality after years of questionable choices.
"Lost Boys And Golden Girls" closes the album, a piano ballad in the tradition of "For Crying Out Loud" from the original Bat Out Of Hell. Without building into a frenzy, the song glides on a simple but tender piano figure, while Meat Loaf's restrained vocal carries the emotion of a plea to never grow old. The acknowledgment that our wishes to stay young are futile, and that our music remains one of the few connections we have to those memories, returns to the theme and is a powerful note to end the album on.
Bat Out Of Hell is the standard bearer by which Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman will forever be judged, but it is not their best work. Fifteen years after their introduction to the world, the two men created their masterpiece. On an album that is darker, more emotional, more melodic, and more sophisticated, the two have crafted one of the most stunning pieces of art to ever find a home on the pop charts. Millions of people bought the record, but few could ever see past the hit singles and understand the depths of the album, or what they were witness to: Bat Out Of Hell II is simply an album without peer.