Monday, August 11, 2014

In Defense Of: "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" by Jim Steinman

This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

It was 1997, I was fourteen, and life had just become completely unmanageable. Aside from the universal pressures of entering high school, slowly consolidating that whole puberty experiment (Conclusion: not great; worth it), and whatever-else-have-you, there was in that year another demon of seemingly universal scope, and that unholy behemoth was Titanic.

Titanic was everywhere. The movie itself was in theaters for what seemed like forever, eventually grossing over two billion dollars at the box office. Two billion dollars. People lined up to see that three-hour-and-fourteen-minute movie multiple times. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, but man. The print campaign put Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet on every magazine cover in America. Hell, Kathy Bates and Billy Zane probably even snagged a couple. But more importantly to our present conversation, Céline Dion’s version of the soaring James Horner-penned love theme, “My Heart Will Go On,” was inescapable.


The song is an undeniably gorgeous ballad that Dion knocked way, way out of the park — I’m not going to deny that now — but as a young male teenager, I didn’t want to hear it. In fact, I made it a point not to hear it. Even in late high school, I can remember priding myself on the fact that I’d never heard it all the way through. I was ready to have that carved on my tombstone. It wasn’t an easy feat, because it meant talking people into changing the channel in their car, leaving the room when it came on, and, of course, not watching Titanic, which was, okay, probably the easiest part for a teenage boy. But ironically, none of this was as disturbing to me at the time as the fact that — despite my associative hatred for all things Céline — I couldn’t shake the magnetism of her previous hit, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” It was so powerful, just thunderously, pulse-poundingly powerful, and the songwriting behind it was pure theater. Needless to say, I had to keep my feelings about the song very close to the vest.

Fast-forward ten years, I’m listening to it, and it dawns on me: I know why I love this song. It’s a goddamn Meat Loaf song. Yeah yeah, whatever, Céline Dion sings it, but holy shit, what a Meat Loaf song. I had made this mistake before: as a kid, I remember not knowing that John Mellencamp and Meshell Ndegecello’s 1994 version of “Wild Night” was a cover. As an adult, I was speaking with a friend one day about my distaste for Mellencamp, and he said “I liked that one song, ‘Wild Night,’” and in a flash, it dawned on me that it was clearly a Van Morrison cover. I’d never thought about it before, but it was so obvious that I suggested the possibility to my friend, and he said “Huh, really? Wait– yeah, I hear it. You’ve gotta be right. Oh, god, yeah, that’s…yes. Yes. Okay, you’re right, Mellencamp’s best song is a cover enhanced by the presence of a superior musician in Ndegecello. Conceded.”

Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman
Anyway, my point is, after the cursory research I’d never had the impulse to do, I discovered that “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” was, indeed, written by Jim Steinman, the composer of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Now, say what you will about Dion, but I am absolutely a Meat Loaf fan for reasons I have no time or space to delineate here, but that you should know if you have two ears and a heart. Let's just say, if I could sing like Meat Loaf, I'd never talk. When I realized that “It’s All Coming Back” was a song that burst out of Steinman’s head and galloped into the world, demanding recognition of its power and intensity from the relatively pitiful denizens of earth, everything came together.

What most listeners might not know is that there are officially three versions of the song: one in 1989 by Pandora’s Box, an all-female group that Steinman put together for the express purpose of performing the song; Dion’s (most popular) version from 1996; and, finally, finally, a version by Meat Loaf, featuring Norwegian songstress Marion Raven, from 2006. Though the song was undeniably written for Meat Loaf (Just listen to it. C'mon.), Steinman had to legally prevent Meat Loaf from recording it. Steinman claimed for years that it was only to be sung by a female; Meat Loaf countered that it should be performed as a duet. In 2006, for the greater good of mankind, Steinman caved, and so we have three versions of the song, each different, each wonderful, complete with an appropriately dated music video to anchor us. You ready? Get ready.

Pandora’s Box

Dear, sweet Pandora’s Box. How did you have the weirdest, most memorable video, and the most unfortunate version of the song? It’s not your fault: you weren’t Céline Dion. You weren’t even Meat Loaf. You didn’t have the financial backing either of them muster. As a result, the video for the Pandora’s Box version came out as a low-budget, high-concept Satanic-biker-BDSM nightmare, with flaming sculptures made of motorcycle wreckage and leather-bound dancers enacting softcore fetish material. Snake-handling. Ritualistic acupuncture. Studded leather orgies. A galloping white thoroughbred. A whole ton of flames. Eddie Martinez guitar solos.

Wait, who’s Eddie Martinez? I’m so glad you asked. For those of you not in the know, Eddie Martinez is a legendary guitar masturbator famed for his eighties session work. You know the phenomenal camp shredding on “Rock Box” and “King of Rock” by Run-D.M.C.? Holler at your boy. You bring Eddie Martinez onto a project, and it cements you directly in the worst, most decadent eighties metal sound you can imagine. So, you know, incredible. And terrible. And incredible. The Pandora’s Box version of the song has all the pomp and circumstance Steinman could write into it, but perhaps the Martinez inclusion says it all. We can see your talent, and you’ve chosen some good material for the garment, Pandora’s Box, but we’re concerned about your taste level. That said, the video is worth watching for the WTF factor, and, of course, the source material for the song rules.

Céline Dion

Thankfully, Steinman eased up on the controls long enough to let one of the world’s top singers take a crack at his baby. This is the version we’ve all heard, so I’ll keep my comments on the performance itself to a minimum. I have one major thought about this version, and it revolves largely around the incongruity between the music video and the song itself. Namely, we’ve got one of the most powerful (known) female voices in the world singing an unfathomably romantic (and, I’d argue, Romantic, if you wanna get highfalutin’ and artistic about it) song, and the video is immeasurably cheesy and theatrical in the worst sense of the word. I’m talking “hunky man crashing his chopper in a thunderstorm, only to return as a hunky-man-ghost riding a ghost-motorcycle through the halls of
Céline Dion's mansion” cheesy.

The tone is completely different than the other two versions in a significant way, due to Dion’s power and range. Dion shows very little vocal vulnerability until the very end of the song, and then only momentarily. As opposed to the dark and surreal quality of the Pandora’s Box version, Dion’s song is largely triumphant, because, of course, the story of every Céline Dion song is that she’s a staggeringly talented woman with a supernatural voice who gets what she wants. Even though her hunky-man-ghost is destined to remain an apparition that she can only occasionally make out with, she seems to come to grips with the fact that her memories — and the entertainment of occasional candle-lit flashbacks in her beautiful mansion at dusk — ultimately made the affair worth it, despite its tragic end.

Meat Loaf and Marion Raven

That is not the case for the Meat Loaf version. Prepare yourself, because I’m about to take something people probably think of as very shlocky very seriously. I’ll start with the song itself. Meat Loaf, I believe, correctly argued that “It’s All Coming Back” should be a duet, and he did so all over this song. Marion Raven’s sharp and clear voice is a wonderful companion to Meat Loaf’s soul and strength. I think a lot of people are of the incorrect opinion in regard to Meat Loaf. The operatic vibrato he applies to his voice on the long notes in this song, and the delicacy and vulnerability in his voice when he rises in the first chorus are deeply emotive and affecting (“It’s so hard to be-lieve” at 1:25 is a chest-caver). He’s not a simple crooner or bellower, though we’ve all obviously heard him burn down a rock and roll number like he was born to it, because he was, in fact, born to it. But what was once a quasi-facetious play-up of over-the-top crooning in the late seventies for Meat Loaf revealed a capability that he’s molded into a passionate, unique vocal persona, and it comes out beautifully in his duet with Raven.

As for the video, it’s by far the strongest of the three. Now, this is not a huge accomplishment, because the other two are, as argued, trash. This video is not. This video quite recognizably means something and carries an actual, realized message. It opens with a visibly distraught Meat Loaf confronting both material and ghostly apparitions of the object of his love in a beautiful mansion. We are made to understand that this woman has died, and that he is followed by the memories of their passion. The implication made by the video is rather poignant: his love, played by the young, pretty Raven, is shown late in the video to have died in a car crash, speeding recklessly, all tears and running eyeliner, presumably distraught over some argument the two had. It would be harrowing enough if this was meant to be a straightforward depiction of a recent event: the aging gentleman loses his much-younger companion in a tragic accident. However, if you accept the distance between their ages (Meat Loaf is old enough to be Raven’s father) as evidence of the time that has passed since her death, rather than indicating a May-December romance (her apparition remains the age they were when she lost her life, while his living body ages), then you’ve got a man pushing sixty who lives alone, haunted for decades by the memory of his loss.

Now, about this mansion where Meat Loaf resides: whereas the mansion seemed an arbitrary setting in the Dion video — just a space large enough for the singer to run around with her dress cascading behind her and a motorcycle to rip through — in the Meat Loaf version, it takes on a symbolic significance. A house of any size would become an empty, cavernous mansion in the absence of that love that once inhabited it. The moment at the end where Meat Loaf vulnerably sings into a mirror bearing Raven’s reflection: “If you forgive me all this/If I forgive you all that/We forgive and forget/And it’s all coming back to me” becomes a soul-shattering moment where Meat Loaf's heartbroken character makes it very clear that he blames himself for her death. Tragically, she's gone, and there's no chance to receive that forgiveness, or for her to come back to him, which are two desires so great that he literally envisions her moving around within the confines of his lonely, reclusive world. The song becomes more than an ode to romantic memory; it transforms into a cautionary tale about how life is too short and fleeting to allow yourself to hurt someone you love.

This is how this song should be remembered and appreciated, and perhaps the most interesting thing is, there’s no evidence that Jim Steinman himself has wrapped his head around that. Perhaps he doesn’t need to: Céline Dion scored an enormous hit with his song — her album containing the hit sold thirty million copies worldwide — and he got what he wanted — a powerful, female-fronted version of his attempt to write “the most passionate, romantic song” of which he was capable. On his personal website in 2006, around the time of the Meat Loaf version, Steinman made his intentions known: “It's about obsession, and that can be scary because you're not in control, and you don't know where it's going to stop. It says that, at any point in somebody's life, when they loved somebody strongly enough and that person returns, a certain touch, a certain physical gesture can turn them from being defiant and disgusted with this person to being subservient again. And it's not just a pleasurable feeling that comes back, it's the complete terror and loss of control that comes back. And I think that's ultimately a great weapon.”

Fair enough: the artist is allowed to cast their own intentions as the true meaning behind their art. But truly great songs often have an afterlife outside of what their creator intended and additional meanings that may derive from others’ involvement in their artistic process. "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" is one of those great songs.

— JM


  1. I'm not sure if my earlier post went through, but this one will explain more anyway. Although I'm very happy to see a recent article about this song because today's music is such shit, I have to say this, Celine's version not only showed incredible vulnerability (you hear it big time) but it also was the BEST hands down. I'm sorry if you disagree, but I can't even listen to Meatloaf's version half way, because it sounds like dog shit. I seriously can't understand how anyone thinks his is better, as I'm a professional vocalist, and have been for many years. He has a good passionate voice, but when it comes to this song, Celine brought it, end of story, I admit when I was younger I had little respect for her because she didn't write her own material (I have been a writer since I was ten, and have been very successful my whole life) but she brought it with this one especially. As for the video, yes, I'll admit, I'd ditch the cheesy stuff, but if you got rid of the stupid scene of the hunky guy riding his bike around the mansion, it was visually beautiful and brought tears to the eyes. The other nameless idiot females that even TRIED to do this song, let alone a stupid video for it, have no significance in my mind whatsoever, and as for Meatloaf, his vocals were so far less superior to Ceilen's, that I just didn't have the patience to even watch it, despite the fact that the female singing with him was absalutley HORRIBLE. There's my two cents

  2. I'd like to ad one last thing, that singer who's doing the duet with Meatloaf? For the love of GOD, someone please tell her to stop whining and learn how to sing, she has the most ANNOYING whiny voice, I can't listen to the song to save my life, yuck....

  3. #1. Anyone who ever says that "today's music is such shit" sounds lazy. There's always good music being made. As someone who (apparently) makes music, you should know that. Don't generalize.
    #2. I think I made it pretty clear that I don't think Céline Dion's voice is notable for its vulnerability, but for its power. I stand by that. If you glance through my remarks, I think it's also clear that I consider her (technically) the strongest singer of the bunch, and I'd go farther to say probably one of the strongest pop music has produced in the past thirty years. Before anything else, it was her version that made me love the song. But that's not the point. The point is I get more enjoyment out of hearing the perhaps surprising tenderness of Meat Loaf, and I agree with him that the song sounds better as a duet, despite Steinman's wishes. The guy gave him Bat Out of Hell, for Christ's sake, he should learn to trust him.
    #3: The production on the Meat Loaf song sounds a lot better to me than on Céline's version. There's an earnestness to it that I think Céline's version lacks. That is, of course, not on her, but on her production team. I don't, however, think that's something that can or should necessarily be ignored because she's a stronger singer, or that you're a professional vocalist. I know plenty of professional vocalists who like Meat Loaf's voice, but, you know, nice backdoor brag, homegirl. I'm glad you've been a successful writer for decades, and that that affords you plenty of time to jump onto little-known music websites and air your grievances.
    #4: I'm joking with you, but honestly, I'm pleased that someone read this article and felt strongly enough to remark on it. Now, try and get through the Meat Loaf version — it kicks ass, dude, I swear it! — and if you don't like it, you move on. The whole point of these In Defense Of articles (I would be thrilled to see you comment on more of them, even were you to hate each and every stance our writers take!) is to create a forum where people can stick up for music they like that's generally dismissed. I would suspect that most people would have your opinion on the Meat Loaf version of "It's All Coming Back To Me."

    But I think it's goddamn great.

  4. This cover is hella gay, but also pretty spectacular.

  5. Meatloaf Duet Version is the only one that makes me remember this song, not Celine, it is like Bat out Hell, it is Iconic, Celine can have the Titanic stuff, polished is not passionate, I will take the passionate memorable, over more polish in vocal purity, her video is fragmented and forgettable...I DJ'ed when I was younger while not a measure of art, Paradise and many others had people on their feet, Celine can't emote like Meat...IMO

  6. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

    I came to the Meat Loaf version having completely forgotten the Celine Dion version. At some level, the song felt a bit familiar to me, but I put that down to having listened to a lot of Steinman/Loaf collaborations over the years. The realization that I'd first been exposed to it through Celine Dion was a memorable penny drop moment.

    I don't agree with Katy about much else, but I do agree with her about Marion Raven. What you see as a companion vocally, I see as a clash. I'm just not a fan of the way their voices blend. But outside of that, Meat Loaf was right that it works just fine as a duet, and I completely agree that he sings it with a vulnerability and taste that the Dion version lacks. I love things big and bombastic, or I wouldn't like Steinman in the first place, but there's definitely room to bring a little subtlety to the table.