It is a terrible thing for a man to have to admit to himself, but sometimes you just have to come clean and confront the issue head on.
I’m incredibly ageist. I just don’t like hearing old people sing.
As we move into what might be termed the post-revolution era of Rock, this becomes an ever growing issue. It is becoming clearer by the year that old rockers never retire. Where once upon a time bands split up and musical careers lasted a blink of an eye, the modern trend is for the past to be celebrated and embraced. Groups and performers can simply return from a break, re-cast themselves as veterans and continue to make music into their dotage. Admit it, could anyone in 1962 have predicted that Paul McCartney would still be performing in 2016, or said the same about Rod Stewart in 1971?
Yet here lies the problem for at times although the spirit is willing the flesh grows ever weaker. And the human voice, the singer’s ultimate tool, is a muscle which can waste just like any other. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen overnight. Most singers only improve with age. You cannot compare a U2 record of recent years with recordings of theirs from 1983 and deny that the Bono of today possesses a richer, deeper and more soulful set of pipes. But there comes a point where that improvement goes into sharp reverse. The range isn’t what it was, the power starts to die, the tone becomes raspier and even your vocal diction itself takes a turn for the worse.
Some singers take that on board and embrace it. Artists such as Johnny Cash and David Bowie took full advantage of their advancing years and towards the end of their lives re-cast themselves as older men in their dotage. It meant they rode the change in their vocal abilities and made no attempt to overreach. If only others could use that as a template.
So I’m unabashedly prejudiced against old men (and it is always the male stars) who fight the ravages of age and still try to howl like teenagers. And this is a prejudice I’ve been forced to confront head on this week because Meat Loaf has a new album that I really, really wanted to like.
I’ve not touched an album of his for a decade now. The failure of Bat Out Of Hell III to deliver on the promise of the title, its failure to actually be any bloody good, its inability to live up to the legacy of its title soured things for me slightly. Truth is I’ve never been a proper Meat Loaf fan – I’m only here for Jim Steinman. For the songs he writes and sometimes produces. Meat is the vessel into which that genius is primarily poured. With the honourable exception of albums such as Welcome To The Neighbourhood in 1995, I can take or leave his non-Steinman work.
But then along came brand new album Braver Than We Are, his first completely Steinman-penned album since the second Bat album in 1993. A collection of songs penned by the celebrated producer over many decades, it is clearly designed to be his final valedictory musical statement. In what is reported to be less than robust health, Steinman isn’t in the producer’s chair for the album but we are told oversaw the whole creative process. These are mostly new songs from the one modern day songwriter whose turn of phrase can evoke angels painting in primary colours, the urgency and drive of youth and the wild passions that lie beneath the surface of every romantic soul. Truly I could drink in his poetry forever.
All I can say is thank heavens for Spotify, giving me the chance to ‘audition’ the album before contemplating shelling out cash for it. Because it is bloody awful. And the problem is Meat Loaf himself. Never the most technically adept singer, his appeal came from the sheer power of his voice and his urgent need to live through every song he performed. Yet he’s now 68 years old, lurching himself from one health crisis to another, his body showing the ravages of a life lived on stage. The voice that used to tear at your soul, the one which is indelibly associated with some of the most famous rock records of modern times, is now husky and pained. Limited in range beyond anything that has gone before, his attempts to bellow out Steinman songs which require bombast and vigour to do them true justice are almost painful to listen to. Meat Loaf has lost the ability to sing in the way he could before, and it is almost as if everyone is scared to point that out to him.
It breaks my heart to even have to think this way. Because, as I noted above, really I’m here for Jim and not Meat. The songs themselves are immaculate. The soundtrack to the Broadway musical of your dreams, intense widescreen dramas of sex and emotion set in a Peter Pan world where everyone is a horny teenager forever. 11 minute epics such as Going All The Way Is Just A Start invite you to live an entire life with the characters within, running through five different melodies yet leaving you with the feeling that you’ve been singing along throughout. I can tolerate a Steinman song even when it is performed badly, his own Bad For Good album somehow all the more charming thanks to his own barely adequate yelping. But Braver Than We Are is a step too far. Meat Loaf singing songs about a fantasy life whilst sounding like his is about to expire before the end of the next line. He’s still trying to sing like he did 40 years ago. And he simply cannot.
So I’m an ageist. And I surely cannot be alone.