The third song on Bat out of Hell is its softest and sweetest moment, a gently sung ballad backed by piano and strings. The bombast that so defines Steinman’s work is all gone, not just sonically but (at least on the surface) lyrically as well.
The melody is a relatively simple, flowing movement almost entirely down the scale, sort of like a river winding its way down at some varying paces. That constant downward motion of the melody helps give the song a sense of constant momentum, rolling ever-forward even though there isn’t much of a sonic build-up. Meat Loaf even keeps himself restrained throughout, his power and even his vibrato and arguably over-emotive musical theater stylings are all kept in check. He even manages to hit a sustained high note without shouting at the end. (It’s admittedly not the most impressive high note of his career–wait for Bat out of Hell II for that–but it’s still impressive.)
The lyrics to “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat confounding. In singing the first recorded demo, Bette Midler allegedly asked Steinman, “What the fuck is this song about?” Nearly every line is religious imagery, with the singer claiming that he has enough paradise to want both to stay alive and to stay in his home. He feels the calls of angels, gods, and prayers, but is able to resist because of the happiness he has achieved and the love he is getting.
More subtly, he does also reference that if he had gotten this love earlier, he “never would have run away from [his] home.” I take that reference to be saying that the singer is someone from an un-loving family who has found a partner and happiness later in life away from them. It’s only now that he realizes that life can be happy, can be something that he wants to continue. Fifteen years later, it would become very en vogue to celebrate despair by declaring hopelessness and the desire for one’s own death and the world’s destruction in the grunge era. This song is one that really stands in the face of that desperation by saying, “I got that feeling earlier in life, but now I get why not to give up, too.”
However, the song’s final refrain to “let the altar shine” gives me pause as to its meaning. I find it difficult to accept that Jim Steinman played it straight for an entire song, which makes me think that “let the altar shine” is actually a sexual reference. An altar is a table of offerings, a concept that could easily be applied to a sexual partner’s body, however graphic one wants to make the comparison. (And the same can be applied but perhaps even to wider discrepancy to “I got a taste of paradise.”) “Shine,” in this context, could just mean something like “look its best” or “be in the light,” or could be shining with sweat or other fluids after or during sexual activity. This is all a bit of pure conjecture based mostly on the idea that Steinman wouldn’t write something with such a clear surface-level meaning. However, the surface-level reading that this is someone either in the process of dying or just feeling rather near death who wants to stay on earth because of what he has here makes perfect sense and it absolutely is not necessary (even if it’s fun) to invoke other meanings.
“Heaven Can Wait” was famously the first song from Bat out of Hell to be written, and I think it shows in that there is a real stylistic similarity to “Happy Ending.” It has the repeating phrases without really having a traditional chorus, the self-consciously nonspecific meaning, and the lack of overall sound dynamics that Steinman’s first commercially-released song did. It’s better-polished and better-performed, with a much stronger melody and deeper lyrics, but it feels like the work of the same person.
It will be considered a sort of blasphemy to other Steinman fans, but this song is not one of my favorites of his work. It’s still excellent, but I think it’s the second-weakest on Bat out of Hell and doesn’t belong in the top tier of Steinman’s work.
Leave a Reply