Whether as co-founder of Black Sabbath or as a solo artist, Ozzy Osbourne spent his life and art (at least, the non-reality television part) conjuring death, summoning its spirits and welcoming its hold on heaven or hell. You know the drill: his albums were filled with graveyards, devils and bloodlust. At times Ozzy was ferocious, even if the hair metal scene of the ’80s made his dread seem garish, and his evil had a comic-book edge as time went on.
The point is, since his first album with Sabbath in 1970, Osbourne has worked death, darkness and demon seeds like a painter would oils. So to see the godfather of heavy metal, at 71, who has had to cancel a tour in the wake of a Parkinson’s diagnosis, staring down the chute of the Great Beyond with something that feels like it could be intended as a “goodbye” album is fascinating, even when it isn’t dynamic.
In “Ordinary Man,” Osbourne’s first new solo in nearly 10 years, you get what comes off as an almost Bowie-“Blackstar”-like farewell to friends and fans — albeit with its elegiac tones cranked up to 11, and its lyrics mixing the morose with the blackly humorous. And the dumb. You don’t get an Ozzy Osbourne solo album without some goofiness in the lyric department.
More hard rock than rough metal, and more lavishly produced (by Andrew Watt, of Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy,” and Post Malone’s “Beerbongs & Bentleys” fame) than Ozzy’s sludge-glam sound of his past, “Ordinary Man” is like driving a clown car through a wake. It’s great, fast fun even when it’s sad.
Watt, who co-wrote the tracks and played guitar here, as well as produced, brought in a core group of ragers — Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith — along with guests such as Malone, Elton John, Charlie Puth and Slash. With most of its tracks recorded in one or two takes (according to Osbourne during a SiriusXM live listening session in Hollywood on Feb. 13), “Ordinary Man” juts out at the listener. Opening with an airy heavenly choir’s wails (a sample that floats throughout the song a la the Art of Noise), “Straight to Hell” wastes no time before its narrator screeches “All right now” as he did back on the Sabbath classic “Sweet Leaf.” There’s (thankfully) not a lot of Sabbath touchstones here; the gloom gods ended their run several years ago. The only memories being summoned here are pure solo Ozzy, with its riffing guitar sounds curt and cutting.
“Flying higher than a kite tonight / You took the hit, and now you feel all right,” chatters a high pitched Ozzy with an annoying, spooky cackle behind him and Slash’s nimble-fingered solo in the foreground. “Straight to Hell” is a great introductory track, period, filled with more energy and vocal energy hooks than you’d expect from Osbourne so late in the game.
The same is true of “Scary Little Green Men.” Yes, it’s got a stupid title and stupider lyrics. But there’s drama in its gauzy guitar intro. It’s got catchy hook after hook after hook. Ozzy puts in his gutsiest, clearest performance and offers up the album’s most memorable bridge with his glowering “How long, how long.” And by the time the tune reaches its crescendo of riffing guitars and pounding pianos, “Scary Little Green Men” sounds more like vintage Stooges than an Ozzy outing.
“Goodbye” and “Ordinary Man” are the two most mournful tracks on the album. The first features Osbourne singing “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I gave my life a try” in his most hurt and affecting lower register before an insistently sawing set of cellos and violins. It’s a slow and sneering tune that picks up riff energy after the chorus, leaving Ozzy to hammily utter “it’s ovahh, it’s ovahh / I’ll take my final bow” in a void. Watt has a real way with Hammer Horror drama here.
“Ordinary Man,” Osbourne’s meditation on fame with singing-playing duet partner Elton John, isn’t as handsome or theatrical as “Goodbye.” With its “Candle in the Wind”-y opening and corny strings, having both singers rant windily about not wanting to be plain (?!) seems like more of a gripe about lousy room service than it does dying off as a flaming ember. Plus, the melody itself is often reminiscent of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” … not a bad thing, even if Simon LeBon and Nick Rhodes wrote it first.
Several tracks on “Ordinary Man” let the Blizzard of Oz down. The chiming, alt-rockish “Today is the End” doesn’t end soon enough. Though there’s plenty of squealing guitar menace and ascending Valkyrian mountain uplift to his Gothic “All My Life” ballad, its melody goes nowhere. “Under the Graveyard” paints itself as a misery epic, starting with Osbourne in moan mode, singing “Today I woke up, and I hate myself.” But, along with its forgettable melody, Ozzy has found himself in the middle of some self-help therapy metal, by crying that he doesn’t want to be his own enemy anymore. In the direst straits of Ozzy’s life, at least he wants to live it in a positive, stress-free mode.
Luckily, Osbourne, Watt & Co. tie things together in a neat, energetic bow toward album’s end. Along with the aforementioned “Scary Green Men,” and “Holy for Tonight” — a strong song and a somber throwback to ’70s glam balladry with its high background vocals — there’s “It’s a Raid.” Saving the hardest for last here, Post Malone repays the favor of “Take What You Want” (a “Hollywood’s Bleeding” track featuring Ozzy and Travis Scott that also appears on “Ordinary Man” as a bonus cut) and aids Osbourne in a power-drilling, neo-hardcore, metal growl-fest with both men at their snottiest. When Ozzy gets in the last word with a haughty, angry “F— you, all,” you get the sense that the Blizzard of Oz is not crawling into hell quietly.
With a really good — even at times great — album, Ozzy Osbourne shows off, at the very least, that he’ll never be ordinary.