SORRY, SIR PAUL: The correct CD for Starbucks’ totalitarian blast-marketing was Ozzy’s Black Rain.
Feel, feel for Sir Paul McCartney. The 64-year-old ex-Beatle carries a heavy load: perpetual fame, a 10-ton legacy, and — since last Tuesday — the brooding proletarian enmity of thousands of Starbucks baristas. Sir Paul’s 21st solo album, Memory Almost Full, was recorded for the Starbucks house label Hear Music, and on June 5, by corporate decree, it was played all frigging day in Starbucks stores worldwide. Can there have been a single espresso pumper left unaffected by shift-long exposure to this “global listening event”? (And what a sinister, NASA-style piece of nomenclature that is, by the way: when the comet hits, the Big One, going 600 miles a minute and plumed with interstellar malevolence, we will have another “global listening event.”) Starbucks employees, I’m talking to you: if, at quitting time, you found yourself charmed afresh by the skirling mandolin of opening track “Dance Tonight,” and the kickdrum like a hobnailed boot on a floorboard, and the plaintively rustic whistling — if you found yourself loving it all over again, on the eighth or ninth rotation — contact me at the address below and I’ll send you a piece of gum.
Here’s the thing, though: somehow, in their tizzy of planetary promotion, the plutocrats of Starbucks failed to realize that they were getting behind THE WRONG ALBUM. The correct CD for this kind of totalitarian blast-marketing is not Sir Paul’s Memory Almost Full — it’s Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Rain (Epic). State-of-the-art American heavy metal: that’s what you aim at the enemy compound, that’s what brings ’em out weeping after 14 hours, not the twilight ramblings of an Aquarian genius. Memory Almost Full, like many of Sir Paul’s solo efforts, is a domestic/eccentric piece of work, reeking of hobbyism, one-man-band-ness, and the garden shed. On half the tracks Sir Paul plays all the instruments himself. There are the usual odd bits of honky soul jumbled into it, and aberrant electro-touches, and morbid flights of whimsy; and he intermittently sings in that unfortunate quasi-Caribbean accent of which he’s so fond. For a global listening event, it’s altogether too quaint.
Ozzy’s Black Rain — his first album since 2001 — is, on the other hand, slick, crushing, inevitable. This is the one that should have been stamped onto the face of the world in a caffeine-based all-day saturation session. Kevin Churko, who produced it, has worked for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, the Corrs — a sparkling flotilla of divas — but the thing you need to know about him is that he apprenticed for four years in Switzerland with Robert “Mutt” Lange, architect of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Back in Black. And the great Mutt, in his Alpine redoubt, must have handed down some heavy-metal chops to his pupil, because production-wise Black Rain is a beauty, a glut of sonic satisfactions. Mike Bordin’s deep-impact drumming is so far in the pocket, it’s almost sub-acoustic; guitarist Zakk Wylde churns like a cement mixer, or squeaks out those razor’s-edge pinched harmonics; Ozzy himself, his 58-year-old voice treated to emphasize its foreign and tubular properties, sounds magnificent. For an album like this to succeed, the songwriting only has to be insufficiently terrible to ruin the production, and these songs (co-written by Churko) aren’t terrible at all. The single “I Don’t Wanna Stop,” “Civilize the Universe,” and the title track are all fairly solid ass kickers.
Metal, in its lumbering, small-eyed way, has a firm grip on certain basal realities: sin, power, destruction, madness, the gapings of Hell, etc. It’s never far from being relevant, in other words, and Black Rain is particularly on-the-money. Burned out he may be, but even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and Ozzy’s moment of insight has come round again: “Politicians confuse me — I watch the body count rise/Why are the children all marching into the desert to die?” he laments in the title track. “We’ve crossed too many borders/Military suiciiiiiiide.” A serpentine muezzin wail rises over the sound of marching boots, and the song ends in a sequence of distant, toneless detonations. Has nothing changed since Black Sabbath wrote “War Pigs”? Uh, not really. In fact, Sabbath’s ancient millenarian distrust of society now appears rather prescient. And before you dismiss Ozzy’s critique of the Iraq war as heavy-metal buffoonery, you might want to remember that this album is being played right now in Baghdad, in Basra, in tents and in tanks. For a particularly loyal section of the Oz fan base, the tolling bell in Black Rain — a tribute to Mutt’s work on “Hells Bells”? — is no joke at all.