What are we looking for from a Meat Loaf album in 2012? Bombast, sure—there’s always going to be bombast. But whenever Meat Loaf steps away from his Bat Out Of Hell collaborator Jim Steinman, he’s also seemed willing to experiment a little, toying with his most common stage personae: the belting hard-rocker, the kitschy theater geek, and the romantic greaser. What’s most surprising about Meat Loaf’s latest album Hell In A Handbasket is that it seems to peel away those disguises, taking its cue from the album-opener “All Of Me,” in which Meat Loaf confesses, “This is my anger… my insecurities.” (Of course, technically these are songwriter Dave Berg’s insecurities and anger, but Meat Loaf does make the words his own.) The sound of the record follows “All Of Me” too, taking the glitzy surfaces and soaring choruses of pop-country and contemporary Christian music and giving them that Meat Loaf beef.
The problem with Hell In A Handbasket is the same problem that’s affected almost every Meat Loaf album since Bat Out Of Hell: The balance between sincerity, craziness, virtuosity, and earnest self-parody is way out of whack. Meat Loaf has a voice like none other, and when he applies it to something as simple as the Handbasket power ballad “Another Day” or the surging anthem “Fall From Grace,” the strength of the vocals turns genuine sentiment into something thrilling—even overwhelming. And it’s hard not to appreciate Handbasket’s more uproariously over-the-top tracks, such as the post-apocalyptic cover of “California Dreamin’,” or the fist-in-the-air twang-rocker “Stand In The Storm” (with guest vocals by Trace Adkins, Mark McGrath, and Lil Jon!), or the unhinged medley “Blue Sky/Mad Mad World/The Good God Is A Woman And She Don’t Like Ugly,” which starts all church-y and then drops a heavy beat just in time for the guest rap by Chuck D.
But too much of Hell In A Handbasket is just generic songwriter-mill fodder, over-cranked and over-sung. The heart is there; with Meat Loaf, the heart is always there. But the skin is synthetic, and not in any kind of super-cool or ironic way. This album is neither fun enough nor weird enough to demand the kind of obsessive replaying of Meat Loaf’s best. Swap in Celine Dion, Garth Brooks, or even Kirk Franklin on a lot of these tracks, and the difference wouldn’t be appreciable.