Patient Number 9 2LP
With the last good Ozzy Osbourne album having been released over twenty years ago now (2001’s Down To Earth was respectable – 2010’s Scream was both an earnest and mawkish expression of Ozzy’s strengths as it tried to update its styling for a new, digital generation which fell flat and 2020’s Ordinary Man saw the singer shaking off a lot of rust but still missing the mark), the pressure to produce something good must have been on, when work began on Patient Number 9. Now forty-two years into his solo career, the singer really had something to prove again – and it was “do or die” (or retire) time. Before hearing a note from the album, the ambition in it is obvious – utilizing so many guitarists that they don’t even all fit on the album’s hype sticker (Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi and Zakk Wylde all get mention – but somehow Josh Homme and Dave Navarro don’t, and producer Andrew Watt plays guitar on the album too), listeners may be ready to strap themselves in for a more than slightly diffuse affair – but much of the namedropping proves to have little effect on the songs, in the end. In fact, Wylde and Watt do most of the heavy lifting from a guitar standpoint – and most everyone else just appears for a sales pitch.
Even with the knowledge that salesmanship is the driving force behind the album in hand, however, that doesn’t mean Patient Number 9 opens smoothly. “Immortal” opens the running with a guitar figure which sounds like it was lifted right out of Van Halen’s first album and doesn’t stop sounding like it was made in 1978 until Ozzy’s vocals appear in the mix. When they do, the verses feature an immediacy and anthemic power which is instantly satisfying (although lines like, “Bury me down below/ I’ll never die/ ‘Cause I’m immortal” short circuit the power in the choruses) and set the precedent that confirms the singer is capable of keeping this ship afloat. According to the liner notes, Mike McCready contributes a guitar part to the song, but it’s difficult to find it – so the song really has no choice but to stand on its own merits (which listeners can debate at their leisure).
Because McCready’s contribution to “Immortal” is hard to find, listeners will relax their sphincters a bit and find that, when Jeff Beck’s contributions to the title track – which follows “Immortal” – do manifest, the flavor compliments the song very well. Listeners will find that Beck’s soloing truly does add to the experience rather than just being another star in the constellation, and the power of the title track sets up the assault of “Parasite” (on which Zakk Wylde appears, brilliantly) and leaves listeners’ appetites whetted for more.
The power levels set by the A-side of Patient Number 9 continue undiminished on the B- as Tony Iommi appears backing Ozzy for “Escape From Now” which defies expectation and proves to be the best follow-up to everything Black Sabbath has done since 1975 (and it’s not even the best Iommi but on the album – but more on that later), but then Eric Clapton really fumbles the ball with a truly epic mishandling of “One Of Those Days.”
Anyone who’s familiar with “guest guitarist” performances on any given album knows they can go one of two ways: either the guitarist understands that they’re not appearing on their own album and attempt to work themselves smoothly into the dynamic of the host artist, or the guitarist takes their inclusion as an opportunity to put their own fingerprints on someone else’s work in a very awkward and indelible way. One approach implies maturity, the other betrays an inherent sense of insecurity. On “One of Those Days,” Andrew Watt seems to compress every other sound which appears in the mix so that Clapton can lay some Slowhand leads over top using a mid-scooped but clean-toned Stratocaster. The final result sounds genuinely awkward – like an average-at-best guitarist playing along with a record – and it really puts the development of the album a few steps back, from a pacing standpoint. It’s a pity, because “One of Those Days” could have been a much better song without Clapton.
As poorly as “One of Those Days” presents, Jeff Beck returns for his second appearance on Patient Number 9 and does better than just recoup the ground lost. There, Beck surpasses all other guests on the first half of the set, undeniably. Set in an epic “hard rock ballad” form, Beck goes out of his way to serve the song rather than “enhancing” it; a really smooth (and, occasionally, almost fretless and elastic-sounding) solo adds some unique and savory flavor which helps the song be impressive and not gaudy.
After completing his turn (and listeners take the obligatory second to change LPs), Beck concedes the proceedings to Zakk Wylde again for the fairly formulaic “Mr. Darkness” (where everyone slows the mix down a little further – except during the solo breaks – and Ozzy complains about no one knowing his name, on behalf of the song’s character), everything seems to remain in a holding position; there are no great hooks, no terribly memorable moments at all, really – and that sensation endures through “Nothing Feels Right” as well as “Evil Shuffle” – although the band does eventually find its way into a dark rhythm which lives up to the song’s title.
When listeners finally make their way to the D-side of Patient Number 9, they’ll find themselves finally rewarded for the patience that they had to express through the C-. There, Ozzy finds his harmonica and Tony Iommi fins the volume knob on his amplifier, and the pair present the best approximation of a new Black Sabbath song that they’ve produced in over a decade. It really does feel like the pressure has been released as Robert Trujillo and Chad Smith break free and have the chance to unload with them here too. Comparatively, “Dead and Gone” just treads water before Dave Navarro and Josh Homme help to add a completely different kind of almost alt-math flavor to “God Only Knows,” and then “Darkside Blues” unexpectedly turns in an excellent and ghostly dobro blues song to close out the proceedings. It’s definitely an unusual end – particularly for an Ozzy album – but it’s not a bad one.
Taking Patient Number 9 as a whole document, it’s easy to understand how some and where critics will criticize the album – but the truth is that fans will find it a solid and satisfying release. True, an argument could be made that Ozzy and/or his record label weren’t even sure how well “Ozzy’s first album in twenty years” would translate – so they decided to add a bunch of other famous names to it – but everyone (both fans and the artist) will be able to breathe easy and in satisfaction at this presentation. Patient Number 9 is definitely a valid entry into Ozzy Osbourne’s catalogue. [Bill Adams]
Patient Number 9 is out now. Buy it here, on Amazon.