Ozzy Osbourne, Patient Number 9 ★★★★☆
There was a time when it seemed unlikely that we would hear from Ozzy Osbourne again. Heavy metal’s clown prince of darkness has had a rough few years, in which he revealed that he has Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in 2003 but kept secret until 2019), was hospitalised for pneumonia, Covid and blood clots, and underwent “life-changing” surgery following a fall. A planned farewell tour has been postponed multiple times: the dates are currently pencilled in for 2023.
Then up he popped at the Commonwealth Games in his native Birmingham last month, strapped to a back brace to keep him vertical, grinning with delight as he roared through the 1970 anthem Paranoid accompanied by his old Black Sabbath sidekick Tony Iommi on guitar. Now, here’s his 13th solo album (to add to the nine he recorded with Sabbath), Patient Number 9: a defiantly bravura set of melodic metal on which the 73-year-old genuinely sounds as though he’s having the time of his life.
Osbourne’s regal status is confirmed by the starry quality of his supporting players, including all-time great guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The core backing band is made up of Metallica bassist Roberto Trujillo and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, augmented by members of Guns ’N Roses, Queens of the Stone Age, Pearl Jam and the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Iommi appears for the first time on an Osbourne solo album, bringing psychedelic Sabbath riffing to No Escape From Now, a sludgy tempo-shifting epic of dread and fear. “Memories go up in flames / Shovel dirt upon my name / See my future circle in a drain,” Osbourne wails. This, to be fair, is the kind of thing that passes for good cheer in his horrormeister oeuvre.
No one ever went to an Ozzy Osbourne record for wisdom and self-reflection, and being confronted with his mortality on a daily basis doesn’t seem to have changed him much. “I’m not getting out alive,” he sings on the title track – but rather than a rumination on the inevitable, it’s just some silliness about life being like an asylum. By the second track, Immortal, Osbourne is wailing about being a vampire. In a recent interview, he admitted that he didn’t always understand Geezer Butler’s fantastical Sabbath lyrics, and that personally he “could sing about any old s–t”. The lurid Degradation Rules is credited to all key musicians, so we can’t lay all the blame on Osbourne for its “sticky little magazines” and “masturbating fools”.
The most eloquent moments belong to the guitarists. Beck tears up the title track and adds atmospheric flair to the stately A Thousand Shades, a ballad that wouldn’t embarrass Noel Gallagher. It’s interesting to hear Clapton’s sensitive bluesy twists in a heavy metal context on One of Those Days, where Osbourne almost sounds soulful singing about a loss of faith. His voice has never been particularly nimble: what it has is tone and power, and producer Andrew Watt is adept at building big, exciting tracks to surround Osbourne’s bellowing. The virtuoso guitarist Zakk Wylde does a lot of the heavy lifting, driving big riffs through songs with schlocky titles such as Parasite, Mr Darkness and Evil Shuffle.
Right at the close, God Only Knows hints at something approaching profundity, as Osbourne addresses the fear that may have always lurked behind his fascination with horror imagery. “Wonder what will come after / Will we do it all again? / Things that used to matter / They don’t matter in the end,” he sings. Yet he remains defiant to the last: “Better to burn in hell than fade away.” On Patient Number 9, the old devil’s still burning. Neil McCormick