As a larger-than-life presence in every sense of the word, Meat Loaf doesn’t sing mere songs so much as he sings life anthems. To this end, hearing the news that he was planning on releasing an album, Hell in a Handbasket, self-described as the most personal he’s ever made, comes as a bit of a shock — he’s always made it clear that he’s channeling characters in his songs and on albums (the reason why he’s a middle-aged man railing against parents and schools in Bat Out of Hell II, for example — he’s playing a tormented teenager). But Meat, an accomplished actor with more than 60 films under his belt, is shedding the acting for Handbasket, however, and the transformation is an intense one.
The album, however, is not only a personal record, it’s also a razor-tongued condemnation of what Meat sees as going wrong in the world – and that includes everything from world hunger, money-grabbing industry parasites and fairweather friends. If it sounds ambitious, it is; and more importantly, from a thematic standpoint, the result is a concept album whose subject matter ultimately doesn’t come across as contrived.
The album’s direction is evident from the opening track, All of Me, which is startling in its lack of usual bravado (and dare we say, even showcases some rarely seen vulnerability). Gone is the channeling of an anguished character; this new voice actually admits “these are my insecurities/that I can’t explain.” Another track, The Giving Tree, laments the artificial draw of wealth and fame and extols the virtues of creating a self-made life.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Meat Loaf album without some straight-ahead pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rock tracks, and the album delivers on this front as well, especially with the radio-ready Fall from Grace. Party of One, meanwhile, is a hard-driving track that reflects the personal and professional turmoil Meat went through after firing his cadre of managers and handlers after suffering a physical breakdown post –Bat Out of Hell III in 2006.
Listening to a duet on a Meat Loaf album is often the equivalent of watching a much older actor play a high-school student rather convincingly — you’re surprised how much you enjoy it, even if you’re not quite sure why it’s happening. Many of Meat’s duets with longtime collaborator Patti Russo are usually fantastically histrionic affairs — breathless numbers that conjure up teenage longing, not more age-appropriate adult relationships. But this album’s duet, Our Love and Our Souls, nails the album’s overall tone home. The song is a stark contrast to the duets that came before it, finding the two in a domestic setting dealing with everyday minutiae — cars and heat breaking down and bills piling up, and consequently learning how to depend on each other. It mirrors the ambiance of the rest of the album; as listeners, we’re witnessing a number of cathartic moments of someone comfortable in his own skin.
There are a couple of covers here, including the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ and Tom Cochrane’s Mad Mad World, both keeping in line with the album’s premise. Of course, not all the songs here necessarily adhere to the rest of the album’s theme; Stand In the Storm, a previous collaboration with Meat’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ team contestants, is inexplicably included here, name-checking Donald Trump and the team name. But it’s only a small misstep in what is a truly outstanding album.
To say Meat hasn’t been in this form in years wouldn’t technically be true; you’ve never seen him be this raw or candid at all in his music. And it’s a decision that’s a tremendously wise one — Handbasket delivers on all accounts.