Batman (the Prince Album) vs. Batman (the Jim Steinman Musical)

As far as I know (and when it comes to musicals and their ilk, I think my knowledge is reasonably extensive), there have been only two serious attempts made at a full-scale musicalization of the iconic comic book superhero Batman and his equally familiar cast of supporting characters. The first was a plotted Concept Album by Soul/Rock virtuoso Prince that was originally intended as a full-scale soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 film based on the franchise. Very little of the music heard on the album actually got used in the film, and the songs are rarely heard today because of licensing issues, but it did produce a Number One hit on the Billboard charts at the time (albeit with its weakest track, the nonsensical embarrassment “Batdance”). Still, like pretty much everything else Prince wrote in the Eighties, his Batman album is fantastic as music, and it follows the Burton film extremely closely, often to the point of its songs corresponding to specific scenes in the movie.

The second was a Broadway-bound Rock Musical that wound up as even less than a road-closer…an abortive composition that never even made it to an actual public stage. That said, it was announced for Broadway at one point, and it did get a recording, and an official one at that…like the rest of composer Jim Steinman’s demos, it was not a bootleg item, but an authorized release by the man himself on his own website. Based on these demos, we can infer that this musical was also heavily drawn from Burton’s film franchise, although it resembles more a combination of the first two Burton films, with the character of Catwoman brought in as a tragic love interest for the hero.

Of course, comic book fans saw the idea as absurd, with one of the animated Batman television series even mocking it openly in-show; but the writers of that parody seem to have an idea of what a musical is that stopped around 1955. The truth is, judging from the demos, Steinman’s show was not the utter catastrophe that legend has made it out to be. Many people have wondered how anyone could possibly sign off on such a project, but I honestly think the general consensus was, “If anyone can do a Batman musical, Jim Steinman can”. And indeed, Steinman’s score, or at least the portions he completed, has quite a bit to be said for it. Steinman’s dark, melodramatic, over-the-top composing style is about the most convincing match for the tone of the material they were likely to find. Moreover, he seemed to have a genuine feel for these archetypical characters, doing a surprisingly suitable job of establishing and capturing them in song.

Granted, there are times when Prince’s slicker, more stylized approach serves the material better. The first track on Prince’s album, “The Future”, actually establishes Batman’s motivations much more effectively than the more straightforward “Graveyard Shift” on Steinman’s demo. The latter, while correct in terms of dramatic content, comes across as rather earthbound, cribbing lines from other Steinman songs while struggling to express sentiments that don’t really lend themselves to being sung. Prince’s more abstract, laconic take on the character’s credo comes off as far less heavy-handed, as well as sounding significantly more like something a character as charismatic and formidable as Batman would actually say.

And while it isn’t as bad as “Batdance”, the Steinman version also has one outright embarrassing song, the sappy ballad “Not Allowed to Love”. This song would work much better when it was used in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical nearly a decade later, but its extremely sentimental lyrics just don’t sound right coming out of the mouths of Batman and Catwoman. Prince’s serenely gorgeous “The Arms of Orion”, on the other hand, makes for an infinitely better central love duet.

However, Steinman’s opening “Gotham City” sequence, including fragments of the songs “Angels Arise” (later incorporated into the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires) and “Cry to Heaven”, is a marvelously atmospheric opening. And “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” (later included on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell III album) is a suitably terrifying villain song, even if the version on the Batman demos does feel a little bit like a first draft. These songs draw the entire city into the story, which is fitting given that Gotham City is practically a character in itself in both the comics and especially the Burton films. Prince’s songs tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual leads, at the expense of the atmosphere and social background.

Also, on Prince’s album, Vicki Vale’s only musical expression beyond her duet with Batman in “The Arms of Orion” is “Lemon Crush”, which has a typically great Prince beat but sounds more like a generic sex jam of the kind Prince was infamous for than any kind of actual character song. Meanwhile, Steinman’s Catwoman is treated as the full equal to Batman and The Joker with an equally intense establishing number to set up her motivations. “I Need All the Love I Can Get”, a reworking of the Steinman-penned Sisters Of Mercy hit “More”, is a fine Rock ballad, with a particularly ravishing introductory section where the singer weighs the concepts of life and death against each other.

In addition, the songs used by Prince to represent the Joker, while they may be better as pure music, do not approach the creativity of Steinman’s “Wonderful Toys”, a gloriously insane piece of violent randomness that is the perfect character number for an embodiment of destructive chaos like the Joker. While Prince’s “Partyman”, “Electric Chair” and “Trust” do strike a reasonably appropriate note of mingled cheerfulness and menace, all of them are far too conventional and “normal” for a character whose defining trait is his utter insanity.

Also, as an “Eleven-O’Clock” love ballad, Prince’s “Scandalous”, ravishing as it is, doesn’t approach the emotional impact or thematic appropriateness of the planned climactic number of Steinman’s show, “We’re Still the Children We Once Were”. While not exactly subtle in its emotionalism even by Jim Steinman standards, it nonetheless provokes a devastating emotional response, and its evocation of primal childhood fears seems appropriate for the story of Batman, a man who lost his parents when he was eight years old and never managed to move on from it.

It’s also worth remembering that Prince’s album was very specifically based on a film version, and throughout, it retains a distinctly cinematic ambiance. The songs on Steinman’s demos sound far more like they were actually based on a comic book…not only more so than Prince’s album, but also far more so than such other comic book musicals as It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

On the whole, Prince’s album is admittedly far more cohesive and effective as a composition than Steinman’s demo material…but then again, it is also an actual finished product, and the musical might have come much closer to that level of effectiveness had it actually been completed. Even so, the material in the demos, while still clearly flawed, demonstrates that there was more potential in the project than most people gave it credit for, and if Steinman and his collaborators hadn’t gotten discouraged by the negativity and given up the project, they might, just possibly, have found a way to make it work on stage.

“Cosmo’s Factory” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

This was the last of Rock giants Creedence Clearwater Revival’s four top-level masterpieces, and it certainly produced more hit songs than the other three combined. But somehow, the album is the first since their debut to seem like less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it was their more singles-oriented approach this time around…Creedence usually put some effort into creating coherent albums, but here they just took their last six singles and B-sides and crammed them onto a disc with four covers and only one additional original song.

Maybe it was the greater proportion of covers that kept the album from really establishing it own identity…after all, none of their mature albums had featured so many of them. While Creedence was certainly exceptionally good at putting their own stamp on other people’s songs, this album’s high proportion of other people’s material serves to dilute Creedence’s normally unmistakable trademark style. For example, while Creedence had released outright Blues songs before this (such as “Penthouse Pauper”), those usually had more creative and distinctive lyrics than Ellas McDaniel’s “Before You Accuse Me”, which, for all its musical merits, uses the same generic topics and vernacular as virtually every other Blues standard out there.

Or maybe it was the amount of time spent on the extended jam sessions of “Ramble Tamble” and the cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”…Creedence actually turned out to be a damned fine jam band, but these two songs (which add up to a full eighteen minutes, nearly half the album’s running time) took up time that could have been devoted to more substantial content.

Or maybe it was that their more generic songwriting approach…apart from the magically imaginative “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, the songs, fine as they are, rely more on familiar clichés than Creedence’s earlier stuff. Certainly, “Travelin’ Band”, as much fun as it undeniably is, isn’t going to win any awards for its creativity, and the inspirational “Up Around the Bend” doesn’t do anything particularly new with its time-honored ‘Excelsior’ metaphor.

But whatever the reason, all these factors seem to add up to an “album” that is exactly what Creedence had been unfairly accused of making on their last three records…a random collection of individual songs with little to no real cohesion. True, the sequencing is capable—“Ramble Tamble” makes for an exceptionally striking opener, and they were smart enough to put another original after the “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” jam session as a coda—but after the band’s last three albums, it came as something of a mild disappointment.

Despite all this, the album still qualifies as a Rock masterpiece because the songs themselves are nearly all wonderful. For all their lapses in creativity, this might just be the catchiest collection of songs Creedence ever released…it’s basically one big concentration of flat-out hit singles, a kind of Greatest Hits album made out of original material. There’s a reason the band’s Diamond-certified compilation album Chronicle drew more than twice as many songs from this record than from any of their other albums.

 Still, it shows the first hints of the problems that would wind up being the band’s downfall on their next two albums. Like Sinatra’s Nice ‘N’ Easy, this is a record that clearly points to the end of a classic run of great albums even as it largely continues their quality. Still, it has to be treasured as the last truly great album that Creedence would produce, either as a group or in their primary contributor John Fogarty’s solo career, and in spite of any minor lapses in cohesion, that certainly gives it a special place in the pantheon of great Classic Rock albums.

“Beautiful Trauma” by Pink

This album marked a major turning point in Pink’s output, because it was here that she officially transformed into an Adult Contemporary singer. By all ordinary standards, this is a very good album…it’s immensely touching, full of memorable melodies, and Pink’s voice is actually better suited to this kind of music than to the Pop-Rock material she previously sang. The only context in which this qualifies as a disappointment is in terms of Pink’s career.

For some reason I can’t fathom, certain online critics have taken heavy issue with the album she released before this, 2012’s The Truth About Love, but it pretty much sounded like her usual material up to that point. Even the much-maligned single that she wrote for the Alice Through the Looking Glass soundtrack between the two albums, “Just Like Fire”, still maintained the sound and tone that had made her famous. But with this album, she transformed from a ferocious Pop-Rock spitfire to a Punk-tinged Celine Dion with better lyrics.

For one thing, apart from the fairly lightweight novelty duet with Eminem, “Revenge”, the album is nearly all ballads, with nothing remotely approaching the heaviness of “So What” or “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”. But of course Pink has released any number of sad ballads before, from “Just Like a Pill” on her breakthrough release Missundaztood in 2002 to “Just Give Me a Reason” in 2013. What makes these ballads different is that before this, even on her saddest songs Pink never lost her air of defiance. The overall feel of this album is one of resignation, an emotion we all honestly never thought we’d see from Pink. It’s like after all these years, the fight just suddenly went out of her.

The only songs that even attempt a defiant tone are the album’s two political tracks, “What About Us?” and “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”. I have defended these songs from critics who have found them too abstract in comparison to the more bluntly topical, Ani DiFranco-esque political song Pink released during the Bush administration, “Dear Mr. President”. I actually think these songs’ more poetic, Dylan-esque approach serves them better, not least because they will remain relevant to future conflicts in years to come while “Dear Mr. President” is already an irrelevant cultural relic even today.

But as much as I admire both these songs, I have to admit that neither of them really succeeds in striking the defiant note they seem to be searching for. “What About Us?” sounds like a dirge, an expression of despairing mourning for an entire nation of innocents. “Wild Hearts”, on the other hand, is more quixotic than defiant, a song that clearly believes there is no hope but is determined to go down fighting anyway. To be honest, I think the political situation she writes about is in large part responsible for her drastic change in style: I have no idea if her marriage is actually turbulent enough to provide the inspiration the dysfunctional relationship ballads heard on this album (for her sake, I certainly hope it isn’t), but I think she took the outcome of the 2016 presidential election really hard.

Whatever the reason, this album still qualifies as another great Pop album released in 2017—certainly far more interesting than its lukewarm 2019 follow-up, Hurts 2 Be Human. Apart from the two political songs, everything on the album may sound pretty much the same, but the melodies, the vocals and above all the deep and resonant sense of sorrow that pervades this album make it an extremely effective listening experience nonetheless. Still, it started Pink down a road that few thought was really right for her, and her work in the aftermath of that change seems to be bearing that assessment out.

“Go the Distance” by Michael Bolton

The original version of this song was one of the better things in the score of Disney’s Hercules, but like everything in that film, it was definitely flawed. This was easily the most narcissistic of the Disney ballads, with an entitled mentality in the lyric that came off as downright unlikable. That said, the melody, while less than top-drawer Alan Menken, was still lovely and stirring, and it certainly came off better than the annoying R&B numbers for the Muses, or the unfunny comic relief numbers for “Phil”, the satyr who trains Hercules in the movie.

For the Pop single version, they enlisted Michael Bolton, and while he doesn’t sing the song nearly as well as Roger Bart did in the film, in many ways the single version is an improvement on the original. The lyrics have been heavily rewritten to reflect a much more humble and introspective point of view (“But to look beyond the glory/is the hardest part/A hero’s strength is measured/by his heart”), thus neatly repairing the song’s primary compositional problem.

And Bolton keeps his trademark vocal histrionics to a pretty manageable level here…indeed, he’s more subdued and dignified on this track than Peabo Bryson generally was on his recordings of Disney themes. As much grief as Bolton generally gets for his artistic choices, I have to admit that this is another of the handful of times he actually got it right.

Verdict: Questionable at best for the film version, but Bolton’s cover is actually pretty decent.

“Like a Rolling Stone” by Michael Bolton

This cover definitely wasn’t a good idea, but it’s not quite as patently ridiculous as it may sound in concept…Bolton’s attempts at interpretational singing are always at their most tolerable when he has a song that sounds right in his perennially out-of-place Hair Metal scream, and the truth is that his voice sounds pretty great here. The problem is that “Like a Rolling Stone” isn’t really supposed to be pleasant to listen to. The entire reason it was such a revelation in its day is because of how angry and jeering and abrasive it was, and Bolton’s pretty singing and the soft Easy Listening arrangement kind of neuter the song’s intended impact and don’t make much sense alongside its malicious taunt of a lyric. A few of Bolton’s attempts at classic standards have worked (most notably his Grammy-winning rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman”), but mostly his attempts at the genre have been something of an unfortunate mistake, and while this wasn’t as bad a choice for Bolton’s style as, say, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, it still wound up missing the point of the original song.

Verdict: Prettily sung, but definitely underwhelming compared to Dylan’s original.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” by Michael Bolton

Michael Bolton’s bad reputation isn’t exactly undeserved…between his frequently poor material as a Soft Rocker and his often disastrous attempts to reinterpret classic standards, there’s a reason few people take him seriously. But his actual voice is undeniably impressive, even if his decision to perform everything in an overwrought scream often spoils its effect, and he can actually be a wonderful performer when given material that is both, A). good, and B). suitable for his performing style. His early material as a Hair Metal singer is often treated as though it were the only good work he had ever done, but a few of his early Pop singles (“How Can We Be Lovers”, “Love Is a Wonderful Thing”, “Time, Love and Tenderness”) were valid, and this is one of the best of them. This was Bolton’s third hit covering a Classic Soul standard, but while “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was just an incredibly wrongheaded choice for Bolton’s style and “Georgia On My Mind” was done in by an awful Soft Rock arrangement, this cover actually works because the original song calls for exactly the kind of Soul Scream that Bolton specializes in. He performs it in almost exactly the same way Percy Sledge did on the original, and it proves to be an ideal showcase for all the good things about his voice. It may be a controversial opinion to state that Michael Bolton’s cover of Percy Sledge actually deserved its Grammy win, but I think I can back this one up.

Verdict: I certainly wouldn’t stick up for all of Bolton’s attempts at classic standards, but this is one of the few times it actually worked.

“Can I Touch You…There?” by Michael Bolton

Despite what his detractors say, Michael Bolton’s voice is actually pretty great under the right circumstances, and as I’ve stated before, he did record a few decent songs even in his Soft Rock period, but most of his material is ruined by his tendency to perform every song as though he was in the throes of some kind of hysterical fit. If you study his background, the problem becomes obvious…he got his start fronting a Hair Metal band, and since that’s where he picked up his vocal technique, he still performs every song in a Metal Scream, whether it’s a syrupy Easy Listening ballad or a Classic Soul cover, no matter how inappropriate that is for the material at hand. It also doesn’t help that his Soft Rock material tended, with a few exceptions, to be outstandingly poor; most of his originals came from assembly-line Easy Listening hack Diane Warren, but Bolton apparently wrote this one more or less on his own, which may be the problem. Apart from the music itself, which quite literally sounds like a porn soundtrack, there’s the disgusting title and moronic, sleazy lyrics that aren’t even competent enough to create actual double-entendres. This is pretty much the worst song Bolton ever recorded, and it does a lot to explain how he wound up with his current reputation as a world-class laughingstock.

Verdict: Ewwww.

“Love is a Wonderful Thing” by Michael Bolton

Michael Bolton has a reputation as one of the worst Soft Rock acts out there, but his first few albums in that vein did at least produce a few decent singles. Since Bolton had started out as a fairly legit Hard Rock singer, most of his better songs (like “How Can We Be Lovers” and “Time, Love and Tenderness”) tended to have traces of this sound, while his worst songs tended to be his ill-advised ventures into the world of Soul and R&B, which makes this song something of an anomaly. The big scandal regarding this song is that it might or might not have been plagiarized from an obscure Isley Brothers single, and like anything that could even be mistaken for the Isley Brothers, it’s not really all that bad. The smooth, infectious Soul-influenced music is a far more convincing attempt at the genre that most of what Bolton was releasing at the time, and Bolton keeps his notorious vocal histrionics relatively under control here, resulting in one of the most enjoyable tracks he ever recorded after he switched from Hard Rock to Soft Rock.

Verdict: Good

“We’re an American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad

Grand Funk Railroad are admittedly not as terrible as critics at the time would have you believe—their brand of blistering, bluesy Party-Rock was actually pretty satisfying on the surface. The problem is that they lacked any sort of depth. It’s not just that they couldn’t write decent lyrics to save their lives (though that certainly didn’t help)…it’s the fact that their version of Blues-Rock, while never short on force or heat, lacked the Soul that is supposed to be the very foundation of the Blues.

This song is a perfect illustration of that problem…it’s a blatant rip-off of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band”, but if you listen to the two side by side, it’s clear that even at twice that song’s length this imitation pales in comparison to the real thing. I think these guys were trying to lay claim to the genre-defying cultural niche that Creedence’s breakup had left open, but it turned out to be Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that rocked as hard as Grand Funk but actually had depth and intelligence in their songwriting, that wound up filling that role for most of the Seventies.

As I said, this band isn’t the abomination most Rock critics make them out to be, and they can be a rather fun listen if you’re not looking for anything too meaningful. But with so many other bands from that era that were doing essentially the same thing only vastly better, it’s kind of hard to seriously recommend them.

Verdict: Not awful, but why would you listen to these guys when you could be listening to Creedence or Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers?

“Awful Things” by Lil Peep

Discussing this artist’s output has become something of a minefield, at least among those who have a decent respect for the dead, due to his tragically young death a couple of years ago. And while, as a critic, I have to be honest and say I don’t think this track is completely successful or even really a “good song” in the conventional sense of the word, I do think it showed an enormous amount of potential that would be tragically snuffed out by this Rapper’s early passing.

After all, what this song reminds me of more than anything else is the singles from Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory album. And while those singles (particularly “Crawling”) haven’t really aged all that well, they did feature genuinely interesting sonic textures and a sincerity to their melodrama that made them hard to dismiss, and the very same qualities are apparent in this song.

And remember, Linkin Park would go on to make multiple masterpiece-level albums later in their career, and I could totally have seen Lil Peep undergoing the same kind of artistic progress had he lived. The music he made while he was alive may have been deeply flawed, but it had all the earmarks of the early-career teething errors of a future musical genius, and it’s heartbreaking that we’ll never know what this young man could have achieved in a better world.

Verdict: Not entirely successful, but legitimately interesting, and hinting at a potential that will now sadly always be one of popular music’s great unanswered questions.