In February, legendary rock icon and Black Sabbath founder Ozzy Osbourne – also known by his more theatrical names: The Prince of Darkness and the Godfather of heavy metal – released his twelfth solo album, Ordinary Man.
Commanding a career that began in 1968 under the banner of Black Sabbath, Ozzy, influenced by blues and early rock, birthed heavy metal. Though the genre’s origins are endlessly debated and discussed, it’s reasonable to say that Black Sabbath, in 1970, released one of the first (if not the first) heavy metal album. Like most new art movements, it wasn’t spawned out of thin air, it was born out of the influences that fed the hungriest artists of the era – artists who yearned not only to play the music they loved, but who dared to explore, push the envelope, and test listeners’ limits for experimentation. They were influenced by hard-rock and blues-rock, and the acid-fueled romp of the ‘60s. As Sabbath prodded their instruments in search of new sounds, their distorted amps expunged the flowery, colorful tones that defined and soundtracked the 60s. Just listen to the opening on their self-titled debut: a heavy deluge of rain bucketing down on the paved road as thunder roars in the background over the haunting church bells ringing out, followed by a thick, distorted G power chord. This was dark, creepy stuff, unlike almost anything that was being written and recorded in the era. Judas Priest’s singer, Rob Halford, described it as the “most evil track ever that’s been written in metal.”
A decade later, as drug addiction consumed him, Ozzy was fired from the band he founded, but went on to have one of the most successful solo careers of any frontman. This is no easy feat. Think of your favorite bands; bands with a bevy of hall-of-fame hits (in Sabbath’s case, “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “War Pigs,” – and these are all from just one record). Now think of a case where the founder was fired for self-destructive tendencies and, in response, launched a solo career with hits that, at the very least, are on par with their former band’s. Ozzy’s solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, charted higher than Sabbath’s first record without him, Heaven and Hell, both released in the same year. This would have been like Brian Jones, after being fired from the Rolling Stones, going solo and releasing a record bigger than Sticky Fingers.
Though not officially announced, Ordinary Man is likely the final official studio release from Ozzy – but who knows what the record label will spend years churning out as they comb every inch of his vaults for demos and recordings, years after he’s gone. The album features a slew of collaborations, starting with Ozzy’s newest producer, Andrew Watt. The two began their partnership last year when Ozzy cowrote and appeared on Post Malone’s “Take What You Want,” for his record, Hollywood’s Bleedin, which, at the time, Watt was producing. The much younger Watt, a millennial born around the same time Nirvana released their first record, was steeped in rock and roll from a young age, and is no stranger to working with decorated rock stars; in 2013, he founded his own band with Led Zeppelin descendant, Jason Bonham, and Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes.
The rest of the roster on Ordinary Man is no slouch either, with some heavy hitters hailing from an era closer to Ozzy’s: Slash and Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers all make appearances, in addition to Elton John.
With the recent news of a Parkinson’s diagnoses and thereafter cancellation of the No More Tours tour, it can’t help but feel like the end of the road for the esteemed ambassador of heavy metal, who, for generations, quenched teenage thirst for parental disapproval. In fact, Ordinary Man feels, in many ways, like David Bowie’s Blackstar. It is not only the final chapter of a discography, but its lyrics and arrangements bear acknowledgement of the fact. In “Lazarus,” Bowie sang while staring down his despondent cancer diagnoses with not anger or sorrow, but acceptance, “Look up here, I’m in heaven; I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Ozzy, in “Ordinary Man,” echoes a similar poignancy, “Don’t forget me as the colors fade; when the lights go down, it’s just an empty stage.” Nearly every song on the album hints at the inevitable.
Ordinary Man is a deeply introspective statement from Ozzy. It strips the façade carefully curated by record labels and marketing gurus to hawk his music at angsty teens, eschewing self-mythologizing for something far more meaningful: realism. In “Holy For Tonight,” when Ozzy sings, “I’m runnin’ out of time; forever I know I’m someone that they won’t remember,” he isn’t the larger-than-life “Prince of Darkness” belting out the chorus from “Crazy Train,” but a weathered man in his later years who has come to terms with his own mortality and is ready to face it head-on.
The opening number on Ordinary Man, “Straight to Hell,” is your textbook Ozzy Osbourne stadium rocker. Though Ozzy is a frayed 72 and lacks the same dynamism that fueled him in the 1980s, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this track. Andrew Watt’s production pitches his vocals slightly forward, putting him front and center. Slash supplies the solos on this track, going up and down the scales as Ozzy wails, “Straight to hell; We’re going straight to hell tonight.”
“Do they sell tea in heaven?” Ozzy’s dark, British humor and religious allusions end off “Goodbye,” a song which, in tone, is reminiscent of Sabbath’s 1971 album, Master of Reality. This song – and most of Ordinary Man, such as “All My Life,” “Under the Graveyard,” or “Holy for Tonight” – is adorned with references to Christianity and faith. But unlike the lyrics in Master of Reality, “Goodbye” is written at a much different period in Ozzy’s life. In his heyday, he sang of faith idealistically, “Well I have seen the truth, yes I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways; and I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely and scared at the end of our days.” Here, truly near the end of his days, Ozzy’s songs are far more personal and poignant; they are brooding, rife with self-reflection and retrospect. In “All My Life,” he sings, “I was standin’ at the edge, looking down at myself as a child; And he looked back at me, crying tears of defeat from his eyes; He said I know all the lies that you hide behind every fake smile; Am I gonna be lonely like you.”
Ozzy didn’t have to look far for inspiration on Ordinary Man. His most personal hopes and deepest fears are etched and recorded in the inner grooves of this LP. In “Under the Graveyard,” Ozzy again alludes to the end of his life, “Ashes to ashes, watch me disappear; closer to home because the end is near.” He suggests that his closeness to the end has brought him closer to that which really matters. The record’s religious overtones shine through in the chorus as he sings, “Everything you are; can’t take it when you go.” Further stripping down his deity-like persona, Ozzy acknowledges that at the end of his life, his awards and riches mean little. He just wants what most people want: to be remembered not as the Prince of Darkness, but as a good husband, and a good father.
A standout on this album is the title track, “Ordinary Man.” Before even diving into the lyrics, the title itself is strikingly solemn. Continuing to chip away at and wear down his larger-than-life persona, Ozzy reveals the bare “Ordinary Man” in the Prince of Darkness’ robe. This song reminds me of an older Ozzy record, “Goodbye to Romance,” a retrospective look at his life (in 1980), and what was then the end of a significant chapter of his life: Black Sabbath. It was about his firing from his band and the start of his solo career. In “Ordinary Man,” Ozzy once again digs back, but this time much further, reflecting on an entire career of wild thrills, conquests, and even some duds. The arrangement is elevated beautifully by the lush piano frills and harmonics of Elton John. Slash plays here as well, with a seething solo that could live comfortable in his early 90s Use Your Illusion recordings, right next to “November Rain.”
If there’s one song here where Andrew Watt’s modern-production brush strokes are most apparent, it’s “Today is the End.” And I don’t mean that in a good way. The recording, particularly the chorus, which sounds like a painful pastiche of early 2000s garage rock off MTV, is entirely detached and foreign from Ozzy’s heavy-metal and bluesy roots. Things do pick up with “Scary Little Green Men,” a silly song about an alien invasion from which it is fruitless to try and wrest meaning. Just enjoy it for what it is: the kind of neck-pain-inducing headbanger Ozzy can knock off effortlessly. Along the same lines is “Eat Me” – somewhat reminiscent of Sabbath’s “The Wizard” with its bluesy harmonica opening – another light-hearted rocker that may or may not be written from the perspective of a bat – among Ozzy’s many accomplishments, biting the head off a live bat, on stage, is more relevant now than ever.
In rock-and-roll, it’s the norm that late career records end up as footnotes in the discographies of artists from a bygone era. They are listened to by fans who’ve grown up with them, but seldom cause ripples in the culture. By the time artists have matured and grown past their prime, the culture has moved on. For better or for worse, it has changed and evolved. The culture is driven by the youth, and the youth of today would rather listen to the newest Billie Eilish single than Ozzy Osbourne’s latest LP. Whether Eilish will be remembered and celebrated for as long as Ozzy, or fade away as an ephemeral fad, only time will tell. Very few artists have stayed in tune with the culture over the course of their entire career. While the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Nirvana are rare cases of artists disbanding at the peaks of their respective careers, most artists continue well into their nadir years yearning to rekindle their relevance after cementing their legacies. Ozzy Osbourne cemented his legacy twice. First through the ‘70s at the helm of Black Sabbath, and then again as a solo artist through the ‘80s and ‘90s. His final album, Ordinary Man, is more than a yearning for relevance; it’s a yearning for redemption.
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