Not surprisingly for his 12th studio album, Meat Loaf offers a harder edge but no real surprises. By now we’ve come to expect slick, bombastic productions and emotional, theatrical vocal delivery. This time around one mystery is Meat Loaf’s marketing plan. The U.K. and U.S. got official releases of the album in February and March 2012, respectively. The disc came out in Australia and Germany with a slightly different song order. It had a September 2011 release in Australia, while Germany got it in December. Two of the singles to date, “All of Me” and “California Dreamin’,” came out Down Under last fall. Meat Loaf’s supporting tour started in that country in October 2011.
Be that as it may, the real question is the quality of the material on Hell in a Handbasket. Meat has been saying this release is his most honest and personal album ever, but this is hard to juxtapose against the backdrop of all the players involved. As usual, the musical settings are top of the line, in this case supervised by the principal producer, Neverland Express guitarist Paul Crook. As usual, the Express provides the core of the musicians throughout the selections, supplemented by guest singers and performers. The team for Handbasket also includes songwriting veterans from Meat Loaf’s previous album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear such as Gregory Becker, John Paul White, and Sean McConnell. McConnell’s contributions reportedly had been intended for Hang Cool Teddy Bear but were discarded as they didn’t fit that album’s creative direction.
One thing is clear: this album has a theme, which is just how pissed off Meat Loaf seems to be these days. Dave Berg’s “All of Me” is an appropriate opener, as if Meat Loaf is introducing a new stage show about a character full of anger and insecurities inside his “fortress.” In a similar vein, Evan Watson’s gospel-flavored “The Giving Tree” is about a man whose luck has run out. He has to start living like he did before, “with my mattress on the floor.” Becker, White, and Tommy Henriksen penned the raw rocker with fiddle flourishes, “Live or Die.” Dave Kushner and Franky Perez’s fast-paced, organ-based “Party of One” is sort of what punk rock would be with a melodic lead singer. Not exactly “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” as this edition of Meat Loaf is on his own, railing to no one in particular.
Chuck D is the first of the guest artists to perform. He provides an extended – and yes, angry – rap for the three-part performance piece, “Blue Sky/Mad Mad World/The Good God is a Woman and She Don’t Like Ugly.” The gentler cover of “California Dreamin'” features a martial drumbeat and the multi-tracked vocals of Patti Russo. Is Dave Luther’s sax solo a nod to the Beach Boys rendition of the same song? They also used that instrument in their version. Russo returns in “Our Love and Our Souls,” a string of lyrical clichés about things just being things, no matter the storms that beset us. Likewise, Bill Luther and Justin Weaver’s “40 Days” casts the singer as a prophet crying that a rain is going to wash away all the ills of the world. Continuing the water imagery, “Stand in the Storm” brings aboard Lil Jon, Trace Adkins, John Rich, and Mark McGrath to shout that you have to be strong. Incidentally, these gents (minus Adkins) were Meat Loaf’s teammates on season eleven of Celebrity Apprentice.
Leaving the first person aside for one song, McConnell’s pulsating “Another Day” describes a lonely girl begging for a change. Later, McConnell’s “Blue Sky” (part of the earlier medley) is fleshed out in a two minute version before the most overt attempt at a chart single, “Fall from Grace,” concludes the set. It took a full album to get there, but “Fall From Grace,” co-composed by Becker, Bobby Huff, and Bleu McAuley, is signature Meat Loaf. The lyrics pull it all together: “Every saint is a sinner someday…We all will fall from grace.”
It’s hard to determine how personal an album with so many cooks in the kitchen can be, especially with so many different songwriters. Honest, perhaps, if everyone Meat Loaf works with is in equally bad moods. I’m not sure if this is the album for rock fans who don’t like Meat Loaf, or for Meat Loaf fans wishing he’d crank up the guitars. Whomever the audience, it does sound good. It’s a lavish rock musical with a pretty emotive central character who’s updating Old Testament wailers in the wilderness. He’s as mad as hell and wants to tell you all about it.