Without even hearing a single note, Ordinary Man feels like it’s going to be Ozzy Osbourne’s last album. As a surface-level judgement that makes sense, as Ozzy is an undisputed rock legend for whom prolificness already isn’t an issue (this being his first album in a decade), so cutting back even further and remaining as a legacy act isn’t too much of a stretch. But there’s also the sadder details of the story, like the swathes of cancelled tours and the recent Parkinson’s diagnosis that have done more to damage the unkillable veneer than has been done in years, or even decades. It leaves an automatic air of melancholy hanging around an album like this; the rockstar mask has been broken, after all, and more so than ever, it feels like the product of an old man trying to keep his light flickering and stave off the end for as long as possible. But to Ozzy’s credit, he’s not an artist to rest on his laurels (being the architect of heavy metal as a genre will do that), and between his recent collaborations with Post Malone and recruiting musical icons ranging from Slash and Duff McKagan to Elton John to bolster this album, it feels like the work of an artist making a conscious effort when a stacked career already under his belt gives him every right to play it safe. In the vein of David Bowie and Chester Bennington, it takes a special kind of artist to be able to write their own swan song, and Ozzy is without question that.
Said swan song in this case is Ordinary Man’s title track, the towering power ballad where Ozzy and Elton John, as two rock lifers that might have gone on too long but are still kicking against the odds, contemplate their own fame and where they’ve come from to get there, and how much of a legacy they’ll leave behind after they’ve gone. That seems to be the implicit ethos of this whole album as well, in the sheer number of stops that have been pulled out to ensure that, if this is the note that Ozzy bows out on, it’s as climactic and triumphant as possible. But that’s not entirely how Ordinary Man turns out, especially with the disconnect and dichotomy within Ozzy himself that’s simultaneously being flaunted and not given the floor to evolve as it’s naturally set out to. The fact that this is as much of an enormous, big-budget metal album as it set out to be salves that wound somewhat, but the fragmentation that comes from an artist embracing his own mortality and also trying to alienate it is hard to brush away, and Ordinary Man can be difficult to fully get onboard with because of it.
It really doesn’t help that Ozzy himself sounds especially rough here, and while that’s to be expected from a 71-year-old still trying to remain tied to his metal roots, a vocal style that’s as naturally braying as his only inflates those imperfections, and is made even worse when such blatant AutoTune is piled on on a track like It’s A Raid. It’s a fairly sizable knock to the album, especially when it’s a fairly pervasive issue throughout, but if nothing else, the rogue’s gallery of names that Ozzy has recruited to back him does soften the blow a bit. Slash is completely in his element with the windswept solo work of the title track and Tom Morello offers a nice sense of pace and crunch to Scary Little Green Men, and while his quieter vocal mixing on It’s A Raid does him absolutely no favours (though given how compressed and haphazard that song sounds as a whole, it’s probably the least of its production worries), Post Malone does actually hold his own in the clearest throughline to his metal roots to date. And when the vast majority of this album is decked out in grand, clean production that’s very much indicative of work with Andrew Watt behind the boards, there’s at least a sense of scale to Ordinary Man that’s easy to appreciate and feels like a natural fit for Ozzy to slip into at this late stage. The big, modern hard rock chugs of Straight To Hell are pretty standard fare, but with the frankly gorgeous piano and strings arrangements on the title track and Holy For Tonight (topped off with some great choral backing vocals on the latter), there’s a sense of poise to moments on this album that are tremendously well executed, and for an older artist in his twilight years, feel like a natural and comfortable career pivot.
And that’s where the major snag with Ordinary Man comes into play, because for as much as this is a more solemn, slow album designed as a chance for Ozzy to close the book on his own terms, actively attempting to buck against that at the same time drains a lot of the emotional weight that would’ve otherwise been there. It goes without saying that Ordinary Man is at its best when tapping into the human vulnerability that’s more of a factor with Ozzy at this point in his life; the reflection on what he’s achieved in his life on the title track returns on All My Life and is tempered with depression on Under The Graveyard and repentance on Holy For Tonight, and even if the returning Take What You Want serves as a blatant tack-on from Post Malone’s last album, Ozzy’s frustration and embittered dejection does follow that line of more exposed human reality. But for some reason the boundaries between Ozzy the man and Ozzy the performer continue to be reinforced, and the results are a series of tonal shifts that really don’t amount to much and only feel more and more awkward. A line like “I’ll make you scream, I’ll make you defecate” on Straight To Hell is plenty questionable in its own right for an album that places so much of an onus on personal vulnerability, and compounded by the campy Alice Cooper-isms of Eat Me and the out-of-place rantings about aliens on Scary Little Green Men makes the gulf seem even wider. It’s certainly in-keeping with ground that Ozzy has trodden before, but the weight that bears down on Ordinary Man only magnifies how awkward their inclusions are, and breaks up what could’ve had so much more poignancy throughout.
It overall makes for an album that has powerful moments, but which lack the focus to really go the entire way with them, and some of the inherent solemnity that could’ve made this a great album dissipates at a rather considerable rate. Of course, when Ordinary Man hits, there’s a depth and a real rawness that’s such a refreshing change of pace, and embraces so much of that built-in weight so effectively. It’s why they’re undoubtedly the strongest moments here; it’s the breaking down of Ozzy’s rockstar persona to reveal a man who’s completely aware that things are coming to an end for him – in his career or otherwise – and is willing to properly look inside himself to pay tribute to everything that’s come before. And even if the whole album can’t come close to keeping up that level of introspection, it’s a fitting note to go out on for a man who’s been anything but ordinary.
For fans of: Alice Cooper, Guns N’ Roses, Black Label Society
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Ordinary Man’ by Ozzy Osbourne is out now on Epic Records.