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Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012

The Politics of Meat Loaf

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Meat Loaf's blockbuster 1977 major-label debut, Bat Out of Hell, set the template for most everything the singer has recorded since: grandiose rock operas about hard-fought love, epic sex and death-defying adventure, set to a smirking score of blustery hard-rock guitars and grandly overblown Broadway arrangements and sung by a master straight man who brings passion and pathos to even the most jokey of lyrics. That formula has been the foundation for all of the singer's subsequent successes, both critical (his massive 1993 comeback album, Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell) and artistic (2010's spirited, if underselling, concept disc Hang Cool Teddy Bear, produced by longtime Green Day guiding hand Rob Cavallo). His latest album, however, breaks from that template a bit. Hell in a Handbasket is at once one of the singer's most stylistically varied efforts, featuring flirtations with contemporary country and hip-hop (courtesy of awesomely bizarre cameos from Chuck D and Lil Jon), and one of his most intimate, dialing back the musical overdrive of his Bat Out of Hell opuses for a relatively intimate set—at least by the standards of a veteran musical-theater performer whose works have always been defined by maximalist, showstopping excess.

Thematically, Hell in a Handbasket is an unusually sullen record, a state-of-society manifesto whose worldview is bluntly summarized by its title. “All of my other albums have been character-driven,” Meat Loaf explains. “This one wasn't character-driven. This one was politically driven.” During our conversation, the 64-year-old singer, who notes that in the '60s he led a D.C. peace march as part of the cast of Hair, criticizes some Occupy Wall Street protesters for tactics he describes as violent, and he suggests that some unemployed Americans may not truly be interested in finding work. He offers these opinions with some caution and a good deal of qualification. He's not Ted Nugent; he doesn't try to polarize. If anything, he detests provocation.

“I don't get involved with politics,” he insists. “I don't get involved with them in my stage show. I don't get up and preach like some acts do. Entertainment is not about that.” Instead of making explicit his political convictions on Handbasket, then, he offers a critique of the overheated political climate. Some lines on the album were taken directly from Fox News and MSNBC rhetoric, he says, and on the album's thesis statement, “Mad Mad World,” he laments the Internet's gloves-off comment culture. “It sometimes seems like if you say anything about anybody in this climate, you'll get shot down, and the Internet is like road rage,” he explains. “People used to speak their opinions. They'd say to their neighbor, 'I don't agree with this,' then they'd have a discussion. But on the Internet, it's really easy to go under the name 'anonymous' and say whatever you want and be as hateful and as cruel as you can possibly be.”

Curious about Meat Loaf's forays into country and hip-hop, I ask about some of the stylistic risks on the album, and he corrects my terminology. “I don't think they're risks,” he says. “I don't consider anything a risk. That's a theme on the album: fear of failure. The minute you're afraid of failure, you've failed. And believe me, this album didn't fail. Do enough people know about it? No. But did we accomplish everything we set out to do with it? Absolutely. To me, that's a success.”

At this point in his career, Meat Loaf has learned to lower his sales expectations. Though Bat Out of Hell remains an all-time top seller—it's one of only 11 albums to sell more than 40 million copies—Meat Loaf understands those numbers would be impossible today. “Some interviewer asked me the question the other day, 'Do you think you're still relevant?' And I said that no one's relevant anymore, which is true,” he explains. “I remember being in the '50s when Sinatra's album went gold, and they would be everywhere. Now I'd be interested in finding out how many albums even go gold anymore. Back then, Adele would have sold 40 million copies, but back then people cared about albums. Now they don't care about them. Stores like Walmart don't even want albums anymore.”

I note that he seems as committed to the album as ever, considering that he just released two substantial ones in about as many years, and he corrects me again. “See, there's where you're wrong,” he says with a chuckle, without expanding on the thought. Perhaps he's planning some kind of announcement, or working on a non-album project? “Wait until October,” he says. I press him further, but he remains tight-lipped. “There should be an announcement some time the end of October,” he says. “You'll find out then.”

Meat Loaf headlines the Riverside Theater on Sunday, Aug. 26. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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