Here’s everything you need to know about the record business in 2010: It contains a not-inconsiderable number of people who thought you needed to hear a Meat Loaf concept album about the visions of a dying soldier who is seeing glimpses of his possible future lives.
Oh, and it’s called Hang Cool Teddy Bear.
And it’s 65 minutes long.
This is what happens when you’re a once-mighty star in a dying industry — people will write you checks just so they can put your name on a piece of product, no matter how asinine it is, in the hopes of refracting one of the last fading rays of your former glory. Of course, the labels have been pumping out shit for as long as there have been labels, but in the old days, they did it because they knew there was so much money in the marketplace that something like Having Fun with Elvis on Stage would turn a profit. These days, they do it because they’re desperate.
In fact, everything about Hang Cool Teddy Bear reeks of desperation, from the album artwork to the frantically overstuffed arrangements of the songs, which scale ever-higher, ever-more-rickety heights of thunderous idiocy in their quest to distract you from the fact that they barely exist. Meat’s voice is shot, which is fitting, because he doesn’t have anything to say.
What he does have is a budget healthy enough to attract plenty of studio ringers, from producer Rob Cavallo (who should have declared a career moratorium on concept albums after American Idiot) to House star Hugh Laurie, who contributes piano to the Kara DioGuardi duet “If I Can’t Have You.” Teddy Bear doesn’t boast the booklet-bloating cast that Meat drafted for Bat Out of Hell III four years ago, but it still includes the talents of a bewildering array of people who should have known better, including bassist Kasim Sulton and ace guitarists Brian May, Steve Vai, and Tim Pierce. Justin Hawkins, the helium-lunged former frontman of the Darkness, added backing vocals and co-wrote some of the songs, but the sense of melody that grounded his flamboyance is gone. About the only name in the liner notes that makes sense is Jack Black, who duets with Loaf on the middle-aged metal shouter “Like a Rose.” He’s a talented singer, but anytime you see his name, you feel like you should laugh, and that’s an improvement over what I felt like doing for most of the rest of the time I listened to Hang Cool Teddy Bear.
Look, it’s a Meat Loaf record. You know what to expect: Loud songs with lots of layers, that go on for longer than they should, with titles that make excessive use of parentheses. But from the opening moments of the first track, “Peace on Earth,” you know something is wrong — it starts off with a series of thudding, slamming noises, like Meat stumbling to the fridge at 3:30 in the morning, before exploding with what sounds like the sound of every session musician in the L.A. metro area. Strings! Guitars! Piano! Pounding drums! Everything but a real melody! It tries hard to replicate old-fashioned Meat Loaf theatrics, with changeups galore, guitar solos that redefine wankery, and bloated gospel shouting, but there’s literally no song to hold all the noise together. Every time the tempo shifts, it feels like you’re listening to someone kick a tape player. And the second track, “Living on the Outside,” gains nothing by being more straightforward; piled high with phony drama, it sounds like Springsteen being done by someone who wants to kill Springsteen. By the time it’s over, you just wish Meat would stop yelling.
But then he does, on “Los Angeloser,” and you remember to be careful what you wish for, because oh God he’s rapping, and there’s scratching and drum machines and a spoken-word breakdown, and the only way the world seems fair is if you hope against hope that Meat wanted this song to be funny and simply ended up missing the mark somewhere along the way.
In contrast, the aforementioned “If I Can’t Have You” is actually enjoyable, in its own limited fashion; it at least has a decent melody, courtesy of DioGuardi and her co-writers, Paul Freeman and Raine Maida. Also, it isn’t over seven minutes long and it doesn’t require Meat’s voice to do any heavy lifting, unlike “Love Is Not Real,” which couldn’t expose the 62-year-old Loaf’s vocals any more cruelly if it pantsed them in church. It’s hard to decide which is worse — that or “Did You Ever Love Somebody,” in which Meat sounds like he’s dying, but not quickly enough.
And on and on it lumbers, a Frankenstein monster of bombast, so bloated beyond sensible length that it makes room for a song as punishingly dumb as “California Isn’t Big Enough for Me,” henceforth known as “the song where Meat Loaf screams ‘I can barely fit my dick in my pants.'” Of all the albums to be an hour and five minutes long, why Hang Cool Teddy Bear? Because Bat Out of Hell has sold more than 40 million copies, that’s why, and no matter how thoroughly Meat’s muse deserts him or how embarrassingly he flails around trying to catch your attention, there’s always going to be someone with money to burn and the knowledge that slapping the Meat Loaf logo on top of a painted album cover will move a few units. With that kind of name value and a steady touring draw, who needs to worry about whether or not the new material is any good? Sometimes, two out of three is pretty fucking awful.