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Meat Loaf, ‘Hell in a Handbasket’ (Legacy)

SPIN Rating: 2 of 10
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Label: Legacy

Even in the ’70s, the decade that rendered the phrase “wretched excess” a critical cliché, Bat Out of Hell distinguished itself as the apotheosis of theatrical hard-rock overkill. With production handled by Todd Rundgren, touring-company rejects Marvin “Meat Loaf ” Aday and producer/impresario Jim Steinman didn’t so much synthesize Jesus Christ Superstar and Born to Run as they imagined the Venn diagram where the Wagnerian kitsch elements of each overlapped. Though mostly remembered for “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a go-to jam for shameless DJs at weddings and college bars who think the crowd won’t find the stylized gender rivalry of “You’re the One That I Want” risqué enough, the 14-times-platinum Hell, like so much of that decade’s dreck, wasn’t just a crass cash-in. The orotund Hair alum with the funny name and his Little Lloyd Weber sidekick were pursuing a gosh-darn artistic vision.

Sound-effects maestro Steinman finally realized that bombastic aesthetic, for what it’s worth, in 1983, with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (He should’ve taken a crack at Adele — just think of the campy heights “Set Fire to the Rain” could have reached with the sleigh bells and “William Tell Overture” explosions it cries out for?) But Meat Loaf himself wallowed in the post-fame doldrums until reuniting with his partner for a more explicitly comic ’90s sequel, Bat Out of Hell 2: Back Into Hell, and its smash hit, “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” (not to mention 2006’s Loaf-does-old-Steinman-songs Bat Out of Hell III). Now almost 20 years after their original reunion, Hell in a Handbasket offers VH-1’s baffled, punchline-deficient talking heads, still determined to pinpoint the identity of “that,” a few more sad possibilities to strike from the list.

Despite its title, though, Meat Loaf’s 12th(!) album is, like most journeys toward damnation, more of a dogged downward trudge than a spectacular Luciferian swan dive.The lip-smacking enticements that the credits offer up to schlock connoisseurs end up sounding far too tame. “Stand in the Storm,” a collaboration featuring Celebrity Apprentice teammates Lil Jon and Mark McGrath, with Trace Adkins standing in for the wisely absent John Rich, is just bland hard rock, even with Jon’s ever-klutzy rap spotlight. And while Chuck D’s cameo (on a song titled “Mad Mad World/The Good God Is a Woman and She Don’t Like Ugly,” it should be noted) is less KRS-One guesting on R.E.M.’s “Radio Song” than KRS-One guesting on Sugar Ray’s “Live & Direct,” it rates far below both Flavor of Love and naming a record How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? on the overall embarrassment scale.

For material, Meat and producer Paul Crook cast a wide net: “Party of One” was written by the unfamous guys in Velvet Revolver, “Mad Mad World” was Tom “Life Is a Highway” Cochrane’s early-’90s attempt at social commentary (dig that timely swipe at the New World Order), and you may be familiar with a little number called “California Dreamin’,” performed here as a duet with longtime foil Patti Russo and featuring a sax solo that will tickle “Edge of Glory” fans. The singer is such a pro that he makes all this sound both of a piece and all his own, but Steinman’s obsession with tacky melodrama is missed. We’re left with skies full of inclement weather (Jesus, does this guy love rain), reflections on fame and fortune’s fleeting nature that he tries to pass off as expressions of working-class solidarity. Then there are such witticisms as “Sometimes when it rains it pours,” and “I cannot turn back / The hands of time.”

Anyway, duh. The new Meat Loaf album sucks. It’s “disappointing” only because it isn’t dreadful in funnier, more interesting ways. You never suspected otherwise, so why belabor the obvious? Because, as always, Meat Loaf offers a grotesque funhouse reflection of pop’s most egregious tendencies that provides a cautionary example of how joyless striving does not lead to soulful inspiration. For singers (and those singers’ fans) who prize virtuoso vocal technique and garish displays of emotion, Meat Loaf remains the human skull on the floor of the cave, the path of footprints that stops dead in the middle of the minefield, the unheeded reminder that tasteless flash is a means to self-expression, not an end in itself. Don’t say we didn’t warn you, Gaga.