Before I say anything else I will say this: if you don’t already enjoy Meat Loaf’s signature style: bombastic, sweaty proclamations of teenage love, lust and life lived at 100mph, then Hang Cool Teddy Bear isn’t going to change your mind. For the rest of us, permanent adolescents all, it’s not quite like going home again but it’s almost like looking at our favourite yearbook.
Bat Out of Hell (1977), and to a lesser degree, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1993) are the greatest examples of what Meat Loaf does best: unabashed paeans to rock and roll excess driven by manic pianos and freight-train vocals. They’re not subtle and neither are the reactions they produce; you either love or hate them. Written and arranged by Jim Steinman, the two Bat albums represent the high point of Meat Loaf’s output, and in the case of the first album, one of the high points of 70s rock.
While other albums, like 1985’s Bad Attitude and 1995’s Welcome to the Neighborhood have had their moments, it wasn’t until 2003’s Couldn’t Have Said It Better that Meat Loaf released a truly great album without the involvement of Steinman. After faltering with Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose (2006), which was patchy despite, or perhaps because of, a handful of Steinman songs, he’s back with Hang Cool Teddy Bear, his fourth without Steinman’s involvement and first for new label Loud and Proud. Though it lacks the passionate urgency that fuels the best of Meat Loaf’s work it’s still “heart on a sleeve” rock and roll the way few others dare make it.
“Peace on Earth” opens with a tempo that’s almost punk rock in its intensity then slows into more familiar territory. Muscular, punchy and anthemic it’s the perfect way to start off the album; wild piano and guitar solos pulling us right away into the world Meat Loaf has spent a career establishing. “Living on the Outside” keeps up the pace, and takes us into “Los Angeloser”. “Los Angeloser” was the first single released from Hang Cool and with good reason: part country twang, part California rock, it’s the disc’s most playful song and, next to “If I Can’t Have You”, the closest Hang Cool gets to the brazen, over the top emotion of the Loaf’s heyday.
Warner exec and songwriter Kara DioGuardi turns in a surprisingly Patti Russo-worthy turn on power ballad “If I Can’t Have You”, accompanied by House star Hugh Laurie on piano. Russo herself turns up on later track “Let’s Be in Love”, another power ballad that doesn’t reach the heights of her other work with Meat Loaf but is nonetheless a touching song and fitting reunion.
Several tracks from Bat Out of Hell III made it plain that hard rock wasn’t an area of strength for Meat Loaf but apparently the lesson didn’t stick; this time out a handful of tracks take the same route with predictable results. “Like a Rose”, with backing vocals from Jack Black, is an awkward fit and grates enough that it sounds like a Velvet Revolver b-side. Thankfully, at 3:16, it’s the shortest track on the album. Another, “Love is Not Real / Next Time Stab Me in the Back” has some virtuoso guitar work courtesy of Steve Vai & Brian May but never comes together as a compelling song. Sadly, at 7:33 it’s the album’s longest track.
Vai shows up again on “Song of Madness” a far more successful hard rock effort which almost brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. Two out of three may not be bad, but one out of three certainly is and I hope that if we ever see another studio album from Meat Loaf he leaves this particular sound behind.
Not all the disappointing songs are rock numbers – "Did You Ever Love Somebody" is a dreary, maudlin mess. Album closer "Elvis in Vegas" has a perfect rock 'n' roll theme, a man reflecting on the time, as a teenager, he saw Elvis perform in Vegas, but the music fails to do the lyrics service. It ends up being closer to "Walking in Memphis" than "Objects in the Rearview Mirror".
While not up to Steinman-esque lengths the songs on Teddy Bear run long, seven of them clock in at over five minutes, three of them over six. The album’s concept is that each of the songs represents a feverish possible future for a wounded soldier and if that sounds ridiculous, well, that’s kind of the point. On the promotional website the label has gone so far as to publish chapters in the ongoing story of Patrick, Hang Cool’s wounded protagonist, which is an admirable commitment to the art of overdoing it. In Loud and Proud Records, Meat Loaf may have found some kindred spirits.
After reportedly having a difficult time recording Bat Out of Hell III and another legal battle with Jim Steinman, many people, including the man himself, felt that we had seen the last of Meat Loaf in the studio. The infamous show at Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena in 2007 where he reportedly stopped performing halfway through “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”, announced that this was his last show and abruptly walked off stage did nothing to dispel those doubts. After all that Hang Cool Teddy Bear came as a pleasant surprise; it’s nice to see the man at work and on the road again (the “Hang Cool” tour begins in July). Though flawed, and unable to consistently find the level of raucous joy that infuses Meat Loaf’s best work it’s still more cohesive than Bat Out of Hell III and for most of its 61 minutes it’s just plain fun. Don’t be surprised if you can't stop humming “Los Angeloser” afterward.