Ozzy Osbourne has never been scary.
I say this as a massive fan of Black Sabbath, particularly the early albums. Sabbath is one of the few bands I can name who actually created their own genre, and every doom metal band that came after them, from Sleep to Bell Witch and all points in between, owes them a massive debt. The first five Sabbath albums are unimpeachable, and the lock-step slow-death grooves laid down by Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are legendary.
But Ozzy? Ozzy was always kind of funny to me. From the very beginning, when he rhymed “masses” with “masses,” he struck me as just some bloke up front, not so much leading the band as being led by it. Theatrically scary became Ozzy’s go-to as he left Sabbath and began his solo career, but he was never as convincing at it as Alice Cooper was. And when he agreed to star in The Osbournes, all pretense was gone. Ozzy has always been an ordinary man.
So I wasn’t too surprised when, at age 71, he titled his 12th solo album Ordinary Man. He does appear on the cover in a “scary” costume with black wings, but turn the record over and you’ll see a photo of him in regular clothes taking a leak in his back yard. That’s the real Ozzy, and this decent effort does a lot to put the focus on him. And really, there’s no way it couldn’t, as Osbourne’s voice is a wavery shadow of the strong instrument it once was.
But this ordinary man has an impressive contacts list, so we get a bevy of superstars playing on this thing. Most of it was made with Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, with guitar work from Slash and Tom Morello, in addition to producer Andrew Watt. (Yep, the guy who made Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy.) The instrumentation is full and solid, with strings on a couple of tracks and loads of keyboards.
And yes, the two big guest stars have rightfully taken up a lot of the ink this record has received. Sir Elton John plays piano and sings on the strikingly autobiographical title track, on which Ozzy sings “Don’t know why I’m still alive, the truth is I don’t want to die an ordinary man…” At the other end of the spectrum is rapper Post Malone, who appears twice here. “It’s a Raid” is one of the heaviest things here, while the bonus track “Take What You Want” is pulled right from Malone’s album and definitely doesn’t fit here.
With all this, Ordinary Man is best when Ozzy is just being Ozzy. “Eat Me” is just as carefree and stupid as you think it will be – he takes the title literally, and asks the listener to “bite ‘til I’m dead.” “Scary Little Green Men” is about aliens that are not as cute and cuddly as we’ve been led to expect. Opener “Straight to Hell” is Sabbath-lite, his spooky narrator promising to “make you defecate.” It’s all silly fun, and it all rocks with competence.
Truth be told, you’ve already heard the best song: the single, “Under the Graveyard,” makes the best use of Ozzy’s swooping voice and gives us the most convincing riff of the lot. The lyrics are so dark that I hope they’re not genuine. It’s a remarkably fatalistic song, from “we’re all rotting bones” to “we all die alone,” but if you’re looking for a classic – and one could argue that these lyrics about death only contribute to its classic status – this is your best bet.
As Ozzy ages, each new album could end up being his swan song. Ordinary Man is a pretty good one, with some deeply personal touches that elevate it from the muck he gave us in the 2000s. If this is his last, he went out just being Ozzy, and that’s all one could ask for.
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At the exact other end of the musical mood spectrum, we have Best Coast.
I have long thought of Best Coast as the indie-rock equivalent of Rush of Blood-era Coldplay. The duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno write simple, catchy songs with lyrics that are so simplistic that they can’t be anything but genuine. This pair has given their albums such straightforward names as Crazy for You and The Only Place and California Nights, and now here they are with their fourth, Always Tomorrow. The songs are exactly what you think they will be from that title.
That’s not to say this isn’t enjoyable stuff, though. The songs are driving and full of verve – this is Cosentino’s healing record, and its pivotal song, “Everything Has Changed,” has an appealing Joan Jett feel to it that sets the tone. “Everything has changed, I like it this way,” she sings, and I can’t deny the little smile the simple chorus brings to my face. Single “For the First Time” feels like an old-school Bangles tune, Cosentino claiming she feels like herself again for the first time.
This is another 41 minutes of catchy, easy rock, with some gems (“Wreckage,” “Master of My Own Mind”) hidden among the pretty good tunes. It’s nearly impossible to dislike this, a quality it shares with every previous Best Coast record. They’re a fun, unexceptional band, and Always Tomorrow is a fun, unexceptional record.
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I have yet to talk about The Men in this space, which is odd. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of this band, but I’m definitely an admirer, and they deserve some attention from me.
When I say I’m an admirer, I’m mainly talking about the artistic evolution this Brooklyn quartet has undergone since crashing onto the punk scene in 2009. Their first two albums were abrasive, cheap noise-punk efforts, but since joining Sacred Bones Records in 2011, the Men have dabbled in all kinds of things, stretching their wings while retaining their original scrappiness.
Their eighth album, Mercy, continues along this path, and all told, I think it’s their finest. My favorite thing here is the swampy 10-minute organ-fueled jam “Wading in Dirty Water,” which rides a groove you’d never expect from these guys and takes it into the stratosphere. Sequencing this second on the album is a perverse act – the opener, the breezy “Cool Water,” is soon forgotten among the waves of this monster, and everything after it pales in comparison.
That’s not to say Mercy peters out from there. Taken on their own terms, the five remaining songs are all worthy, from the minimal piano sketch “Fallin’ Thru” (which feels like eavesdropping on a rehearsal) to the big ‘80s guitars of “Children All Over the World” to the thrashing “Breeze” to the haunting title track. Nothing here is slick or even particularly well-made, but it’s all appealing, and the many different moods the Men stack next to each other turn this brief record into a journey.
I’m not at all sure what convinced me to try this band out in the first place, but I’m glad I did. Over eight albums and an EP they have evolved considerably while still retaining their core identity, and while I can’t say I think any of those eight albums are masterpieces, they all work for me, both individually and together. The Men are one of a kind, and I’m glad to know them.
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Next week, no idea. March isn’t all that promising, so I’d look forward to more columns like this one, about records that are fine but not amazing. Hoping to be surprised.
See you in line Tuesday morning.