Bad for Good seems to me like it was forced into a Bat out of Hell-shaped box that didn’t necessarily fit it and suffered as a result. That may sound damning, but it’s certainly better than Meat Loaf’s follow-up Dead Ringer, which instead feels like an attempt to do a paint-by-numbers of Bat out of Hell. It tries so hard to follow the lines of Bat out of Hell that this album really loses all of the vibrant color of its predecessor. It feels like everyone involved–Meat Loaf and Steinman included–is really just going through the motions of repeating themselves, rather than creating something the way they had previously. While it’s true that in a way Jim Steinman never really tried to do something new after The Dream Engine as much as he just kept trying to perfect that musical, it was always occluded from view such that the individual project could feel fresh. On Dead Ringer, we’re not getting another set of songs written with The Dream Engine in mind but rather a conscious re-creation of the album that resulted from it last time–it’s sort of a copy-of-a-copy situation, and that’s how it feels.
As soon as the album opens with motorcycle engine, Max Weinberg’s drums, and Davey Johnstone guitar leads, it’s clear to what extent we are treading the same ground as “Bat out of Hell,” not coincidentally the first song on that album as well. Roy Bittan’s piano and choir-like backing vocals from Eric Troyer and Rory Dodd (among others) join in at the end of the short introduction. Troyer and Dodd are joined by Allan F. Nicholls and Ted Neeley, and bassist Steve Buslowe is another non-Bat out of Hell participant, but it’s kind of amazing just how directly the earlier album is being referenced, with almost all of the musicians making returns to the fold and Davey Johnstone surely having been told to play like Todd Rundgren at the outset. (And I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something definitely more ’70s feeling to me about Johnstone’s leads than Rundgren’s.) It’s a slower and shorter opening than “Bat out of Hell,” lacking the breakneck piano or quite the level of guitar punch of its predecessor, but the similarities are definitely there.
But of course then we get to the arrival of the show’s star: Meat Loaf, back on vocals. After years of rest and treatments for various physical and psychological ailments to get his voice back and Steinman taking an album of lead vocal duties himself, the prodigal son returns. And it’s pretty quickly clear that he isn’t in 1977 form. He sounds fine through the first stanza, but he’s already sounding strained as he shouts “I wanna go on the red, I wanna go on the green/I wanna go on all colors that I see in between/I wanna run all the tolls, I wanna run all the signs/I wanna run all the way across a white line,” and when the chorus tries to go a little bit higher, he just doesn’t have it. For all that we hear Meat Loaf went through to get his voice back for this album, he actually didn’t have it back yet. “Peel Out” doesn’t stretch him to a breaking point, but the fact that this much is stretching at all says everything we need about how limited his voice is right now.
Interestingly, “Peel Out” is a less piano-led song than most of Steinman’s. The vocals and drums play off of each other the entire time and there are plenty of points where the guitar takes center stage and relegates the piano to a very small role, something that rarely happens on Steinman’s work. The verses and the chorus of the song are really only distinguishable by Meat Loaf’s attempts to sing higher and failing to get there, but there is an extensive ride-out solo from Johnstone that is a fantastic example of the kind of tasteless, blaringly-loud guitar solo I love.
Perhaps the easiest place to see how this album is such a paint-by-numbers kit is in the lyrics, and maybe the easiest example there is “Peel Out.” You can almost hear someone saying, “Bat out of Hell started with a motorcycle song, so this one needs to, too!” Steinman obliges with a song that repeats the same themes as “Bat out of Hell,” opening with complaints about being told to “wait your turn” and asked “when are you going to learn?” and shouting back the response about going on all lights and running all signs and lines. But it doesn’t go anywhere. The second verse is just a restatement of the first. The chorus introduces “Tire tracks and broken hearts/That’s all we’re leaving behind,” which is the best lyric in the song and really sums up everything it has to say. Steinman was such a genius that even this watered-down version of his lyrics is still far superior to most songs, but it seems clear to me that his heart wasn’t in it.
It’s one of the best songs on the album, but “Peel Out” is also something of a microcosm of Dead Ringer as a whole even though it works better than several others. It’s still good; and if we didn’t know the heights not just Steinman but this entire group together could scale, it would be very good. But we do know those heights, and the extent to which this song feels like a filled-milk version of “Bat out of Hell” is disappointing. It’s like Peyton Manning in 2001, still better than most in a global sense but just not as good as we had come to expect and unsatisfying as a result.
Leave a Reply