To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Meat Loaf is big it's rock & roll that got smaller. Even with grandiosity back in fashion (the Killers, My Chemical Romance), you can bet that this Texas-bred, Broadway-on-steroids rock Pavarotti's voice and sensibility will still be too ginormous for the cool part of the room. But there are moments on Bat Out of Hell III to convince even die-hard minimalists that behemoth is better. ''Blind as a Bat,'' for one, single-handedly redeems the power ballad, with Meat Loaf delivering his most impassioned vocals since the original Bat in 1977, skillfully crescendoing from feminine quiver to full Opera Boy blast. Armed with a great forgiveness-begging chorus (''Your love is blind, blind as a bat/Your heart is kind, mine's painted black''), Meat Loaf doesn't just aim at the back row; he goes for and hits back rows three states away.
You may feel the urge to congratulate Jim Steinman, the auteur who wrote the first Bat (14 times platinum), produced and penned the 1993 ''sequel'' (quintuple platinum), and got front-cover billing on both. But hold off on that handshake, because Steinman isn't directly involved this time; he and Meat Loaf spent their summer in a legal battle over the Bat trademark. Instead, ''Blind'' was cowritten and produced by hit-meister Desmond Child (''Livin' on a Prayer,'' ''Livin' La Vida Loca''), who turns out to be a brilliant Steinman mimic.
Of course, Steinman isn't totally gone; the album includes seven older tunes plundered from his back catalog, including the Celine Dion smash ''It's All Coming Back to Me Now.'' And even the songs he didn't author owe him an incalculable debt. Unless you scanned the credits, you might think Steinman composed the Child-cowritten ''Alive,'' which rises from an ersatz early-Springsteen piano riff to a grand chorus that sounds like it includes all of the cast members of every Rent, ever. The only quick giveaway that there's a new team is Child's use of celebrity axmen Brian May and Steve Vai for screamin' cameos, plus some nü-metal burnishing to two tracks.
Actually, for the attentive, there's one other clue that Meat Loaf's signature classic-rock sound is being re-created by talented scabs: the lack of cheekiness. With Steinman at the helm, keen humor helped leaven the hugeness. Without that wit, III still produces scattershot cheap thrills, and Meat Loaf has never been in finer mettle than he is at 59. But to pretend that this follow-up really belongs to the Bat Out of Hell lineage? I would do anything for my love of the original LP, but I won't do that.