A new Rolling Stones album called Return from Exile on Main St.? It doesn’t exist yet, but with the staggering success of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Two decades ago Hollywood learned that sequels to hit movies — ideally with numerals tacked on to their titles — could make both producers and moviegoers very happy. With the exception of an occasional side project like Paul McCartney’s 1980 album, McCartney II (which aimed to re-create the one-man-band raggedness of 1970’s McCartney), the music business seemed exempt from the cynical concept of sequels — until now.
In the last year or so, obscure British art-rocker Mike Oldfield relived his Exorcist heyday with Tubular Bells 2; Barbra Streisand turned to show tunes for the second time on BaBroadway, her follow-up to The Broadway Album (1985); and Neil Young reassembled many of the musicians who contributed to his 1972 landmark, Harvest, for Harvest Moon. And now comes the jaw-dropping success of Bat Out of Hell II, which is sailing over counters worldwide. Poor listeners, prepare yourselves for the era of the sequel album.
Successors to hit albums make a certain amount of sense, no matter how contrived or twisted. The boomer rock audiences that grew up with the original records no doubt feel alienated by guitar grunge, dancehall reggae, and gangsta rap. And how better to reach them than with an album of their favorite pop stars returning to hallowed ground? The proof is in the cash registers. Beyond Meat Loaf’s left-field comeback, Streisand’s Back to Broadway charted better than any of her records since its antecedent, and Neil Young went platinum for the first time in more than a decade with Harvest Moon. Meat Loaf himself admitted to Billboard that Bat II isn’t a sequel but rather “a good marketing tool.”
Sequels are so far proving to be a financially sound investment, but do they cut it musically? Music blockbusters, be they albums or singles, tap into some larger pop zeitgeist and take their audiences along for the ride — before the audiences move on to something else. Recapturing that old fire is tricky, as most pop sequels have shown. Tubular Bells 2 is a padded, New Age-ish revamping of the original piece that made us all shiver as Max von Sydow arrived at Linda Blair’s house. Streisand’s Back to Broadway dips into so many of the same musicals and composers as she did on the original Broadway Album that the follow-up seems a pale shadow. Bat Out of Hell II goes all out to re- create the operatic, high-octane schlock of the original — and, for better or worse, succeeds all too well.
For a sequel album to be treated with even the most remote seriousness, however, the artist needs to use the concept of the original work as a way of driving onto some fresh new roads. Taking that approach, Young has produced the only satisfying sequel to date. Harvest Moon returns him to the acoustic-folkie stamping ground he has revisited throughout his career. But his new songs don’t blatantly recall the ones from Harvest; they just happen to be a batch of quirky Young ballads vaguely in the mode of “Old Man,” with an added sense of mortality and aging. The record works beautifully because it isn’t nostalgic.
Despite Young’s accomplishment, the danger with sequel albums is that the safe-blockbuster mentality that infect- ed Hollywood may soon spread to a record store near you. Leaping aboard the success of Meat Loaf, will the industry desperately latch on to this trend the way it has embraced the MTV Unplugged and duets concepts? Maybe we’re being paranoid. But in some recording studio somewhere, can’t you just picture the members of the reconstituted Fleetwood Mac discussing Meat Loaf and pondering a Rumours II? That’s an image even more frightening than the sight of Stevie Nicks at Clinton’s inaugural rock concert.