Review Summary: You can't always judge an album by its title.
You can't listen to the hype.
Meat Loaf is many things, chief among them a shameless self-promoter. He is infamous for trumpeting his latest work as the best thing he's done since Bat Out Of Hell, and for later claiming any unsuccessful album was actually terrible, and that he was forced to lavish it with the effusive praise he did.
What gets lost in the bipolar attitude Meat Loaf has with his music is that he has produced several under the radar records that stand up well with the work he is synonymous with. Bat Out Of Hell was a blockbuster, but was followed with Dead Ringer, a solid album that few realize exists. Bat Out Of Hell II was another smash, which was followed with Welcome To The Neighborhood and Couldn't Have Said It Better, two more albums that failed to live up to the massive success expected of them, but were nonetheless very good albums that showed Meat capable of producing good music without Jim Steinman coaching him through the process.
Bat Out Of Hell III was, according to Meat, like going through hell. He made the album while being sued by Steinman over the name, and when the album failed to sell up to the standards of the first two Bat records, he wrote the record off as a mistake, whitewashing over the half an album of good music it contained. Now, Meat is back to his usual self, claiming his new album is the best thing he's done since the original Bat, as he has already done many times over.
Is Meat right? No, he's not. He said what he needs to say to get attention, but the truth of the matter is that while Hang Cool Teddy Bear is a far better record than the title would suggest, it is not worthy of the praise he has heaped upon it. It would be easy to write this off as a result of the lack of Steinman penned material, this being only the third album of Meat's career without a song contributed by his foil. Couldn't Have Said It Better lacked Steinman's input as well, and that record survived and thrived in his absence.
What kills Hang Cool Teddy Bear is the very essence of what it's trying to be; a big, loud rock record. This is certainly the heaviest record Meat has ever made, the most rock and roll collection he has ever sung. Unfortunately for Meat, the nature of the music works to sabotage him, turning his powerful voice into another instrument fighting to be heard through the wall of noise. He was an overpowering presence on the two Bat albums that dominated the charts, while here he sounds like another actor in an ensemble cast.
Part of that problem comes from the swelled list of guest stars. Along with stalwart compatriot Patti Russo, Meat is joined by Brian May, Steve Vai, Kara DioGuardio, Justin Hawkins, Jack Black, and Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie). They suck the attention from each song they appear on, shifting the focus away from the story the songs are trying to tell.
The songs themselves have as much to do with the lack of success as anything else. While the heaviest songs Meat has recorded, they lack the nuance, the scope, and the theatrical edge that have defined his career. "Song Of Madness" comes closest to capturing Meat's spirit, a dramatic metal statement scored with stabbing strings at just the right moments. Other songs, like opening combo "Peace On Earth" and "Living On The Outside" strive fro the feel of Steinman's work, coming off as rehashed Springsteen instead.
The songs that work best are the ones that leave behind any pretense of what Meat Loaf has always been. "Like A Rose" is a short, punchy burst of hard rock with an infectious chorus, while "Elvis In Vegas", penned by Jon Bon Jovi, manages to bring enough sweeping emotion to anchor the album. The oddest moment is saved for "California Isn't Big Enough", an absurd song with a hook odd even for a man named Meat Loaf. "I can barely fit my dick in my pants," Meat screams as a synth ripped from the 80's plays the cheesiest riff anyone in the band could think of. The fact that the song manages to play it straight and make it work is a minor miracle. The fact they even tried says something about the project as a whole.
Hang Cool Teddy Bear is another in a long line of frustrating Meat Loaf albums. Half good, half bad, a bloated mish-mash of styles and sounds hobbled together for the sake of being edgy, the album never finds its identity. Meat tries as much as he can, giving a terrific performance for a man in his 60s, but he can't save the album from imploding as the structure gives way. Turning the guitars up isn't the problem, nor is trying to explore new musical territory. As always, the problem is the same as it has always been; without Steinman controlling the material, Meat simply can't pick an entire album's worth of the right songs to sing.