Review Summary: I wish I’d started walking before I ran
By the time Down to Earth rolled around in 2001, Ozzy Osbourne was in a rather interesting position. The Osbournes was still a year away but the success of Ozzfest granted him a new level of relevance as a pop culture figurehead and nu metal tastemaker. The ongoing reunion with Black Sabbath also reinforced his elder statesman status while introducing the institution to a new generation of fans. However, such achievements came with a growing sense of stagnancy and six years between albums makes one wonder what the Ozzman would have to say from such a comfortable point.
Down to Earth makes the start of what I like to call Ozzy’s ‘I love you all’ era. He’s always been an entertainer at heart, but 1995’s Ozzmosis allowed him to finally rip off the wild-man mask with its confessional lyrics and then he just never bothered to put it back on. This is an older, gentler Ozzy who tells you about his hopes and dreams, warns you about drugs, and presumably wants you to drink plenty of water and look both ways before crossing the street. Colleagues like Alice Cooper have proven that this sort of attitude can work if you keep providing the thrills that people loved you for in the first place, but Ozzy seems to go out of his way to remind you all the scary stuff is just him playing pretend.
It also doesn’t help that the actual music lacks a thorough identity. The greater emphasis on sludgy chugs, processed vocals, and other effects would suggest some of that Ozzfest influence rubbing off on him, but it doesn’t follow through enough to feel truly substantial. The reliance on producers and outside songwriters that began in the nineties also reaches critical mass here, making the compositions feel pedestrian and the playing nondescript despite the talents involved. Ozzy has always been at his best when elevated by the band backing him up, but it feels like everybody was afraid of possibly stepping on his toes here.
As much as I hate to rag on an album for what it isn’t doing rather than for what it is doing, there were some real missed opportunities behind the scenes. Zakk Wylde’s minimal presence becomes egregious when you consider he had offered several songs that Ozzy rejected for being ‘too Black Label’ only to be repurposed by that project for 1919 Eternal the following year. Dave Grohl also offered a couple songs that ended up on Probot. It would be easy to blame the Osbourne camp for being shortsighted in those instances but even the guest features that he did for Rob Zombie and Tony Iommi around the same time are more exciting than anything here.
Fortunately, there are some decent songs that keep this from being as bad as I’m making it sound. “Gets Me Through” is a solid opener despite the ‘I’m just a normal guy’ lyrics coming a little too close to condescending, the robotic vocal effect on the chorus of “Facing Hell” makes it oddly memorable, and “Junkie” has a nice shuffle to it. “Dreamer” may be the album’s true staple, serving as a sentimental ballad with some world-weary but still optimistic Beatles flair. Unfortunately, it’s a rather frontloaded experience as subsequent tracks like “Black Illusion” and “Alive” just in one ear and out the ear.
Even at the height of my teenage Ozzy fandom, Down to Earth is one album that I’ve just never been able to get into. The playing is competent but lacking in any standout performances and the songwriting is generally going through the motions with a couple songs managing to keep its head above water. Anecdotes make it easy to imagine what could’ve been but knowing Ozzy’s priorities at the time makes one wonder if it really should’ve happened at all. It’s not an awful album by any means, but it’s also just not interesting enough to be that bad.