The Pulp Finesse of Meatloaf’s Hellscapes
While all artworks are intended to evoke senses other than sight, there is no artistic subdivision that so blatantly attempts to conjure a soundscape more than the artwork of an album. Album artwork continues to be painstakingly pondered and created by the musical artist. However, a general and technologically ineludible underappreciation for album artwork has been developing. In an age where music is accessed on smartphones and iPods, album covers seldom exceed 5 X 2 inches. When albums were sold on vinyl records, there was a monumentality that all albums assumed; each had its own distinct stance based sheerly off of the tangible product with artwork designed to be stared at inquisitively as a patron would view a tapestry at the Cloisters.
The interconnectedness of the music and art world has certainly disbanded from what it once was in the 60s and 70s. The Velvet Underground’s alliance with Andy Warhol produced music that was inspired by and set the trends for the New York art scene, culminating in a nothing-less-than-iconic album cover to The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967, subject to Dadaist interpretations since its reveal. Such an alliance between musical and visual artists was attempted most recently to minimal praise by Lady Gaga with her 2013 album ARTPOP, which has an album cover with a Jeff Koons gazing ball and sculpture of the singer interspersed with scenes of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Despite the increasing dissipation between artists of complementary mediums, there are certain albums which cannot be regarded without factoring in their cover, which is sonically paralleled in the music, and to imagine another image would be impossible. Three of those albums belong to Meatloaf.
Meatloaf: The human incarnation of a fire-breathing dragon moonlighting as a belter of power ballads about feral passions, divine judgement, and Coupe de Villes.
An apocalyptic Rubens triptych when viewed together, the three albums comprising the Bat Out of Hell trilogy tells an enigmatic story fans are discussing to this day. Shamelessly grotesque, the albums depict the travails of a scantily-clad, red-blooded muscleman exhuming himself out of a grave via a motorcycle with a mare’s head attached able to withstand scorching temperatures. Equally unclothed is a winged woman introduced on the sophomore cover, whom the blonde hero attempts to rescue much to the displeasure of one colossal, raging bat. It is apropos to overly describe such hyperbolic artworks, for their immensity and deliciously pulp renderings is analogous to the theatrical, verbose songs on each album.
As Kandinsky gave music a visually abstract representation, the artists of the Bat Out of Hell albums—Richard Corben, Michael Whelan, and Julie Bell—hyper-realistically transcribe Jim Steinman’s lyrics and Meatloaf’s vocals in a way that the sheet music to such songs could never capture. On the title track of his first album, Meatloaf roars: “I’m gonna hit the highway like a battering ram / On a silver-black phantom bike / When the metal is hot, and the engine is hungry / And we’re all about to see the light / … / But when the day is done / And the sun goes down / And the moonlight’s shining through / Then like a sinner before the gates of Heaven / I’ll come crawling on back to you.” Corben’s technique for the 1976 cover seemed to be to paint the lyrics of the title track in a sci-fi baroque portrayal.
It’s no secret that Meatloaf’s albums have not matched the success and brilliance of his first Bat Out of Hell (which went 14 times Platinum in the United States and is #71 on Q Magazine‘s list of 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time). Yet, the effervescence of his image and the lyrics’ narrative has been consistently captured by all three album artists. I’m aware that my emotional ties to Meatloaf’s music is why I can tolerate and poke fun at such artwork. The intentionally lowbrow art juxtaposed with the sweeping orchestrations and rock-opera vocals heighten the album’s overall listening experience. It instills a seditious sentimentality, one that glorifies the possibility of rescuing a flagrant exaggeration of femininity from the depths of hell or owning a motorcycle and being downright badass.
While such canvases may never be hung alongside Basquiat at the Met or as revered as a shelf of Alan Moore’s meta-comics, the artwork of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell albums transport viewers to a dreamscape where the heavens are an amorphous auburn shadowing a dystopian city where hell is perpetually at odds with itself. The lyrics carry listeners to parking lots where lovers are losing their virginity and fumbling with Levi zippers before melodramatically proclaiming wanting and needing but never loving each other. The end product is a synesthesia limbo where the colors orange and blue seduce each other and the constant rumbling of a motorcycle can always be heard in the distance.