To a certain extent, Ozzy Osbourne doesn't need to make new music -- and to a certain extent he hasn't, choosing to not record an album of original material in the years immediately after the reality TV show The Osbournes once again turned him into a household name. At the peak of Ozzy's fame in the early '80s, he was a boogeyman, embodying all the dangers of rock & roll, but the TV show made him safe, even cuddly -- a punch line at the White House Foreign Correspondent's Dinner -- which just helped him rake in the money, particularly since in addition to riding the wave of The Osbournes, his annual OzzFest tour turned into an institution of sorts, helping launch new bands while tending to his metal credibility. Now, that is a rock & roll machine, one driven entirely by personality, not new musical product, and one that was nearly in perpetual motion, never needing new grist for the mill to turn a profit. Yet there's always a risk that an enterprise like that could grow a bit stale, even with the occasional box sets, live albums, and cover records to keep things humming. And so, Ozzy finally got around to a new album original material, releasing Black Rain in the summer of 2007, a full six years after Down to Earth, his last album of originals, and well past the sell-by date of his TV show -- proof that this record isn't about cashing-in, it's about keeping the Osbourne machine rolling.
Black Rain was released just a year and half before Ozzy's 60th birthday, and he does sound like a veteran -- he can't wail like he used to, opting for a lower-register growl, but perhaps the biggest indication that he's getting on in years is that he doesn't rock as hard as he once did. Sure, longtime axeman Zakk Wylde is here playing some mean guitar, but this isn't as heavy as he was even a decade ago, lacking both the gut-level punch and monster riffs of even his post-Randy Rhoads work. Certainly, this level of heaviosity is missed, but it's also true that if Ozzy really strived for a brutal attack he might wind up sounding older than he already does here, so hearing him ease into a hazily dark, vaguely psychedelic heavy rock as reminiscent of Lennon as it is of Sabbath is oddly appropriate. Nothing on Black Rain could really qualify as an Osbourne classic, but there's something curiously comforting about Ozzy relaxing a little bit and singing songs that are strangely age-appropriate -- something that's not respectable, necessarily, something that is still metal, but something that isn't quite as heavy as before, yet retaining that swirling, circular melodies and murky grind that has been his stock and trade for nearly 40 years. If the music feels a bit older, so do Ozzy's lyrics. He spends a startling amount of time addressing the ills of the world, ranging from terrorism to consumerism, and for once his fondness for gloomy doomsday imagery jibes with the conventional-held opinion of the state of the world (although he never gets as apocalyptic as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or the Left Behind series, for that matter, which frankly is a relief). This unintentional zeitgeist piggybacking helps Black Rain feel timely and appropriate, which is a mildly shocking turn of events, and helps the album feel something closer to a work of art than a piece of product for the Ozz machine. It's hardly a perfect record -- producer Kevin Churko, who engineered Osbourne's Under Cover and also produced Cheap Trick's 2006 Rockford, has a long history of pop editing and engineering, including credits on Britney's Oops!...I Did It Again, Shania Twain's Up!, and Celine Dion's New Day Has Come, and all that history is evident in the album's slightly too punchy and precise sound. But even if Black Rain is a bit clean, a bit soft in the center, it's far from an embarrassment, and it's surprisingly likeable -- kind of like Ozzy himself in the new millennium, really, so it's nice that he finally has an album that lives up to his well-scrubbed, reputable persona.