Death by Power Ballad: Bonnie Tyler, “Lovers Again”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Back in her late-70s, “It’s a Heartache” period, gravelly voiced Bonnie Tyler was viewed chiefly as Rod Stewart with a vagina (a designation many have claimed simply describes Stewart himself). When that dubious crown was rather quickly lifted from her head and placed just above the Bette Davis eyes of Kim Carnes, Tyler was left bereft of both an identifying hook for her career, as well as the hit songs that usually comprise such a career. This unfortunate situation lasted until she encountered three words that completely turned her life and livelihood around:

Jim. Fucking. Steinman.

Once Meat Loaf’s popularity had disappeared into a fog of dry ice, Steinman was left with a thousand overblown ideas and no one to turn them into crappy records. Oh, sure, he had made a ridiculous solo album (Bad for Good) with ideas he had been saving for Bat Out of Hell‘s sequel, but he needed a unique, powerful voice worthy of his theatrical, pomporific muse, and his mangy tenor wasn’t gonna cut it.

See, Steinman has long harbored the wish to be another Andrew Lloyd Webber, when wasn’t trying to recreate Springsteen’s Born to Run, and in Bonnie Tyler, he found just the set of pipes he needed to kinda-sorta do both. He (over)produced her 1983 smash Faster than the Speed of Night, with its internationally loved/reviled hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and the two began what could only have been a beautiful/loud/bombastic partnership. They continued their winning streak with “Holding Out for a Hero,” another Steinman song most of us associate with hick teenagers playing chicken with tractors.

Inevitably, a follow-up was called for, so Bonnie and Jim went back into the studio to record the ridiculously named Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire. Steinman passed four steaming blasts of rock-and-roll gas (totally nearly a half hour of CD time) and contracted out the rest to guys like Bryan Adams and the prince (little P) of melodic rock anthems, Desmond Child. Chiefly famous for co-writing KISS’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” (not to mention “Heaven’s on Fire”), Child would soon help put Bon Jovi on the map (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” anyone? How ’bout “Livin’ on a Prayer?”) and within a year or two would have Aerosmith and Cher ringing his doorbell, begging for material.

None of them got “Lovers Again,” though. That went to Bonnie and Jim, and thank God for that.

An echoed-up piano starts the song, playing the chorus’ melody. After the second time through, Bonnie’s voice steps in, wearing a low-cut white dress (probably just like Bonnie was at the time), covered in silky echo:

I’ve got pictures of you in funny poses
Letters from you with pressed yellow roses
I’ve got souvenirs of fun times together
And I’ll cherish those years, and you can bet on forever

(SPOILER ALERT: Pay very close attention to the roses. The roses will make an appearance later in the song, and that appearance will be quite poignant. You’ll go, “Ah, the yellow roses—I got it, man. I got it.” You’ve been warned).

Nice establishing shot—the lady’s looking through some mementos of a lover who might be from a past encounter, or perhaps still with her. We’re just not sure, until the chorus reveals the truth of the situation:

I know we’ll be lovers again, darlin’,
I know we’ll be lovers again
It’s a matter of time
‘Til you see that I’m
The one in the end
Always your friend
Lovers again

Okay, they broke up. So this is a bittersweet scene—a lost love for whom she still pines, whose letters and dead yellow roses and pictures she’s kept all this time, however long it’s been. It’s a sad song, but she’s hopeful it will all come full circle, and she’s holding the olive branch of friendship, in any event. It’s nice. Nicely done, Desmond Child. Well sung, Bonnie. The second verse will doubtless advance the narrative a bit, right?

I’ve got pictures of you and stolen kisses
We looked so young and so full of promise
We had those dreams—they’re not forgotten
‘Cause I’ll build that house with the yellow rose garden

Ah, the roses return—didn’t I tell you the roses would return? And isn’t it poignant? She’s pining for her ex-lover, considering deeply how time and age have changed them. But she won’t forget the things they promised one another, nor will she forget the rose garden they were going to plant together, to grow flowers they could pluck from the ground, kill, and press into letters.

There’s something else afoot, and you have to listen for it. A guitar is introduced into the mix, which is cool, but you can also hear the faintest presence of other voices—Steinman has introduced a choir to the proceedings, very quietly, mixed back, back, back so that you think it’s another keyboard. Those familiar with Steinman’s work who are hearing this for the first time can be forgiven for running away from their speakers and hiding behind the nearest large piece of furniture.

Doesn’t take long for the choir to assert itself—the next chorus finds those heavenly angels chiming in behind Bonnie, echoing her words and giving a nice, reassuring, sustained “Ahhh” when it’s needed. The sound builds and recedes back again, into the final verse:

There’s a picture of you in yesterday’s paper
With that smile I knew and the new name you’ve taken
And I’ll live each day without being bitter
‘Cause we weren’t that way and I know it’s not over

It’s a sad ending. You realize what has transpired to cause Bonnie to look at old pictures and letters and dead roses and ruminate on a love gone by—her ex has gotten married to someone else, with the picture in the paper and the smile and the new name. Big gender confusion moment, though—typically it’s the woman who changes her name in marriage; Bonnie is a woman. Of course, the song was written by a man, but the gender of the narrative voice remains that of a man, even though it’s sung by a woman, and we weren’t aware of this until this very moment. Added bonus: Desmond Child is gay, which could mean he was writing about a girlfriend he’d had before he realized he was gay, or maybe he’s just fucking with all of us.

See, but Jim Steinman is a smart man. He knew the listener might have this confusion over the gender roles being explored or ignored, not to mention the stalkerish tone of “I know it’s not over.” That’s why he chose this very point in the song to unleash the hounds of hell in the form of the choir, which returns in a Wagnerian explosion worthy of Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, and KISS Alive II. And dem angels from on high have brung with them the most obnoxiously reverbed drum kit known to man, manned by the ghost of John Bonham himself, or some session hack mixed to sound like the ghost of John Bonham himself. Thus distracted, the listener takes his/her pummeling until the end of the song, when it’s just Bonnie, then the choir “hoo-ing” and “whoa-ing” til the fadeout.

Those of you hiding behind sofas and big comfy chairs can come out now. Jim Steinman can’t hurt you anymore, because he’s not that way. But you know … it’s not over.

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