Tuesday, 20 December 2016
My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 3
3. Meat Loaf & Jim Steinman - Braver Than We Are
Again, I've already written about this one quite extensively, just over a month ago. A not-so-quick recap...
First up, if you don't like Meat Loaf, you can skip along to the next blog right now. You've made up your mind about that a long time ago and neither this record - nor anything I write about it - will change that opinion. But if you've ever given Meat the time of day, stick around with open ears... and an open mind.
To say I've been looking forward to this record, the reunion between Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, is something of an understatement. It's been 23 years since they last did a full album together, and that was 12 years since the previous one and 16 since their first. At risk of irking the musos even more than I usually do, this is as big as Morrissey and Marr recording together again (not as The Smiths, obviously)... or Billy Joel releasing a new album. (Hahahaha: I'm equally serious about both those comparisons, and somewhere a muso just stabbed my voodoo doll with a rusty stylus.)
But you can build something like this up way too much, and let's face it, the Moz-Marr reunion would probably be as damp a squib as the Stone Roses comeback (though I'd grin and bear it and play it to death all the same) while Billy would struggle to match We Didn't Start The Fire these days, let alone his classic 70s output. So I've been fully prepared for Braver Than We Are to be a disappointment, ever since it was announced as "Coming Spring 2015"...
When it finally "dropped"*, 18 months later, I followed the link to the first single, and was predictably bummed. At 11 1/2 minutes of full-on bombast, this operatic "Song in 6 Movements" felt like Steinman finally falling victim to self-parody. I sat back and waited for the album with a heavy feeling in my gut, and the first reviews did little to offer any relief. "Meat's voice is a wreck," they whinged. "It's not a new album of Steinman material at all," they carped, "just cobbled together leftovers with the occasional 'new song' thrown in!" One reviewer even swore he was the biggest Bat Out of Hell fan ever before calling Braver Than We Are the worst album he'd ever heard, saying he'd had to force himself to listen to it again just to write the review. Wow, First World Problems of Irked Musos... doesn't your heart just bleed?
On finally encountering the beast then, I was prepared for the worst, and the first few times I listened to it, I did wonder if my lack of outrage was just a brave face forced upon me by decades of hero worship (for Steinman primarily, Meat to a lesser degree). And then something weird happened. I fell in love with the freak... and that love affair began with the very song I'd rejected at the start.
Going All The Way Is Just The Start may well be the ultimate Jim Steinman song. No, it's not better than Bat, Paradise, Dead Ringer, Total Eclipse, More Than You Deserve or Objects In The Rearview Mirror. It's not up there with the classics. But it does do everything you want from a Jim Steinman song, and then some. It's 12 minutes of roaring guitars, Roy Bittan-esque piano, ridiculous, overblown imagery, layer upon layer upon layer of melodramatic tosh like the very best rock 'n' roll has to offer. It grows and builds and crescendos like it's the very last song at the end of the world, like if it just keeps on going, maybe we won't have to turn out the lights after all. If this is, as widely assumed and reported, the very last Meat Loaf record and the last will and testament of Jim Steinman, then it does the job just fine.
Yes, there are problems. Meat's voice, first and foremost. There's no denying it's long past its best. I saw an interview with him where he claimed Steinman had insisted he sang every song in the lower register, and that was probably Jim just being kind. He even struggles a bit with that. There are hundreds of vocalists who could have done a better job on this album, but none would have made the same emotional connection to Steinman's last full batch of songs. This had to be a Meat Loaf album, even if he sang it with his dying croak. Steinman describes Meat's performance as "heroic", and I honestly believe there's a truth to that: it's more than just the usual JS-BS. Plus, Jim has a back-up plan to help out the biggest song, dragging both Ellen Foley AND Karla De Vito back from Hell to pitch in: what should have been a duet becomes a grand ménage à trois. Together again for the very first time, these three really are Crusaders of the Heart.
So ignore the musos. If you ever loved Meat 'n' Jim, give this album a try. Be brave: persevere with it as it I did and you will come to love it.
Anything else to add? Beyond those detailed above, there are other flaws with this record, most notably the way it starts strong and then peters out at the end. Metaphor, anyone? But there's still much to love before that. The opening track, Who Needs The Young? is the most bizarre song on the album, an off-kilter mishmash of German cabaret kitsch. Turns out it's the first song Steinman ever wrote so there's huge irony to Meat finally recording it now. However, it fits his 69 year old voice and persona well... in many ways it reminds me of that final Leonard Cohen album. (That'll irk someone, somewhere.) Beyond that (and the big single) we get Speaking In Tongues, a song which delights in collosally awful innuendo such as "You got the fire - I got wood" before building to a line about "an erection of the heart", which is utterly, utterly preposterous and would be laughed out of town if it came from any other artist... but Meat can get away with it when he's singing Steinman. Honestly.
After this, Meat teams up with newcomer Stacey Michelle to tackle one of the few Steinman classics he's never recorded before: Loving You's A Dirty Job (But Somebody's Got To Do It). He has a decent enough crack at it, but doesn't quite match the original by Bonnie Tyler & Todd Rundgren. More successful is another very early Steinman composition, Souvenirs, which shows where Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad's classic "I'm crying icicles instead of tears" line originated from. The album's weakest recording is Only When I Feel, not because of the lyrics (pure Steinman hyperbole: "It only hurts when I feel") but because it's the one that stretches Meat's weary voice way beyond its present limits. He's far more suited to More, originally by the Sisters of Mercy (from back when Steinman was collaborating with Andrew Eldritch): here, the Slipknot-esque growl he can still pull off fits perfectly.
The remainder of the album draws from songs written for early Steinman musicals, elements of which have, over the years, been reworked into other hits, most notably the "turn around" refrain from Total Eclipse of the Heart - but that sounds weird at first without the rest of Bonnie Tyler's breakdown. What the record lacks is a big showstopping finale suitable for the last ever Meat Loaf album: an epic, 300 minute Wagnerian beast befitting Steinman's reputation. Fading away just doesn't seem right when everything else in your career was about burning out.
So given all that criticism, why do I still rate this album so highly? Why do I place it above so many far worthier, muso-pleasing discs this year? I fully accept that out of all the albums I have chosen in this Top Ten, this is the one that most relies on my appreciation of what's gone before. On its own merits, it probably shouldn't be here, and certainly not this high. But this record still means a HELL of a lot to me. Because it's Meat and Jim, back together again for one last go, like I always dreamed they would. They were never about perfection. They were about emotion. And if nothing else, this record's got that in spades.
Next, at Number 2... the feelgood record of the summer. It's about time!