Twelve albums in, Meat Loaf finds himself lumbered with a weak set of songwriters and collaborators, suffering as a result.
Meat Loaf is not, traditionally, known for his subtlety. Old habits die hard and bombast is still the order of the day now that Michael Lee Aday is 12 albums into his career. And yet, the somewhat grim title and cover of Hell in a Handbasket mask a record which in many ways is a great deal less extreme than usual. Perhaps mellowing a little at the age of 64, Meat has had his cadre of songwriters and collaborators work with him on a record which incorporates more acoustic instruments, more reflective lyrics, and even a cover of the less than explosive classic "California Dreamin'". Add in the fact that Chuck D makes an appearance, and it's all the more clear that Bat Out of Hell this is not.
What Hell in a Handbasket actually is is another question. The road ahead has always been unclear since Meat Loaf and long-time collaborator and Bat mastermind Jim Steinman parted ways, and excursions outside that familiar template remain a creative and commercial risk. This particular record has seen a troubled a release schedule -- the album was released at the end of last September in Australia -- and some unfulfilled speculation that Steinman might after all play a role in the international release. In addition, the songwriters are unfamiliar and production is handled by the odd duo of Lil Jon and Meat's guitarist Paul Crook -- all in all, saying that this Handbasket feels oddly hacked together is putting it charitably.
This feeling of incoherence and lack of direction would be more bearable if the songs themselves stood up individually, but too many of these tracks are either chaotic failed experiments or sadly missed opportunities. "Blue Sky / Mad Mad World / The Good God Is a Woman and She Don't Like Ugly" is a prime example of the former category, a fairly crude stitch-up of two and a half songs which veers from ballad to half-baked comment on economic woe and on to that lackluster and reluctant appearance by Chuck D. Later on, "Our Love and Our Souls" is one of a number of flat ballads which spectacularly wastes an appearance by Meat's longtime vocal partner Patti Russo, whose appearance on Bat III's raunchy "What About Love" was so memorable. There is a real train wreck in the form of the rather pompous "Stand in the Storm", which offers the surprising lesson that Celebrity Apprentice is not the best source of vocal collaborators.
Inescapably, Meat Loaf will always be known for Bat Out of Hell, and with good reason. Laughed out of town by dozens of record labels before it became one of the best selling albums of the 1970s, the record was fueled by Meat's unique collaboration with Jim Steinman. Clearly, Meat Loaf has gone on to produce some impressive work without Steinman, but the breakup of that partnership has left the singer very much at the mercy of the new songwriting and and collaborative partnerships he has established. Working with the right people can result in great albums, for example Bat III which had only a few Steinman songs at its disposal, but was at least a match for its predecessor; conversely, bad collaborations can produce an album as confused and disappointing as Hell in a Handbasket.
Ultimately scuppered by too many leaden ballads and self-indulgent guest spots, this outing leaves the future looking very unclear once more for Meat Loaf and offers little to those who aren't already die-hard fans. There are only moments which bring to mind Meat's glory days -- here's hoping Steinman helps provide the long-promised Bat finale which may now be the only way to bring those to life again.