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Album review: Eminem's 'Relapse'

May 14, 2009 | 10:27 am

EMINEM_3_ Eminem is one psychopath who really knows his place.

To promote "Relapse," his first album in more than four years, the 36-year-old rap superstar and self-styled "Satan in black satin panties" is appearing in a special edition of the Marvel comic "The Punisher," now available online; with baby Stewie from "Family Guy" as the animated host of the Fox Network's Sunday cartoon block, and in his own iPhone game based on the Dario Argento-style bloodfest that is the video for "3 a.m." -- his latest hit, in which he portrays himself escaping from a rehabilitation facility, gobbling pills, murdering several random victims and masturbating while watching "Hannah Montana."

None of this is new territory for Eminem. He's turned himself into a cartoon before, played many rounds of rotisserie murder and been glorified by critics (yes, me too) for turning shock into art. He's also taken on various identities to put a little distance between the trailer-park misfit born Marshall Mathers and the antiheroes who do the grotesque deeds he describes in his rhymes.

Eminem himself is a fiction, the most sympathetic of Mathers' criminal minds. That character is often victimized himself; on "Relapse," he recalls a childhood during which he was both raped by his stepfather and forced to eat food his mother laced with pills. (Both incidents are played for laughs.) Then there's the slobbery pervert Ken Kaniff, who resurfaces in his role as keeper of Mathers' homophobic anxieties. And, of course, there's Slim Shady, the jokester reminiscent of the Joker -- when Eminem raps about falling asleep as a stoned child, clutching a "Heath Ledger bobblehead," he's simultaneously taking an improper jab at the deceased actor and crediting him as a kindred spirit.

What's different about "Relapse" is that Mathers lets himself slip in, in new ways. Clean and sober after many years of drug addiction, he could have fully centered this comeback album on his real-life nightmare, creating a semiautobiographical work in the spirit of his Oscar-winning film "8 Mile."

Packed with images of its maker bingeing on brand-name pharmaceuticals, "Relapse" is a drug album as dark as Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night." Some of its strongest images chronicle not mayhem, but real pain: Mathers falling asleep while stuffing himself on junk food, his worried daughter nearby; or digging in the couch for pills and licking the dust out of bottles; or muttering, "I need something to pull me out of this dump."

Anyone who has been or known an addict will recognize this misery. But Eminem is not just another confessional artist, and "Relapse" doesn't turn out to be a story of despair and eventual redemption. That would be too easy for this contemporary Mack the Knife -- or maybe too hard, on an emotional level. It would have resulted in a whole album like the desultory "Beautiful," the one track produced by Mathers himself: a heartfelt power ballad, basically, which employs a poignant rock sample and some inspirational lyrics to fairly pedestrian ends.

Rehabilitation and hypocrisy

Instead, "Relapse" is a critique of the therapeutic culture that, Mathers would probably not deny, helped him reclaim his life. He may be alive to spin these tales through the intervention of doctors and therapists; but in the horrorcore scenes that "Relapse" presents, the only rehabilitation center is Bedlam, and Eminem/Slim is a madman created by the hypocrisy of therapy. From the opening skit, in which actor Dominic West voices a doctor whose untrustworthiness destroys Eminem's chances of recovery, to the last one, which comically depicts the limits of what a Narcotics Anonymous-style support group can handle, "Relapse" puts the lie to the idea that anyone can really get clean.

The Eminem who storms and snickers through "Relapse" rejects sobriety, finds no comfort in support systems and doesn't believe the cycle of violence can be broken. He rips through the veneer of redemption created by self-help and recovery culture to show that beyond the comforting hugs we see on "Intervention" and "Celebrity Rehab," darkness still rules.

This isn't what Dr. Drew Pinksy would call a constructive view of life. But it makes for a strong album, a return to form after the off-putting mix of earnestness and flatulence that characterized 2004's "Encore." Eminem's old mentor Dr. Dre, who produced all but that one track, gives Eminem what he needs as a musician: a gut-wrenchingly forceful beat, ominous atmospherics and tension-building strings. Over this metal-hard, funk-deep music, Eminem spins verses that teem with internal rhymes, alliteration and enough startling word choices to please the most exacting wordplay snobs.

A feeling of isolation runs through "Relapse," and not only because there are no guest rappers beyond Dre and 50 Cent, who appears on the relatively mild and aimless "Crack a Bottle." (Mathers apparently hasn't figured out how to be sober in others' company, at least when in character; both this song and his Dre duet, "Old Time's Sake," celebrate getting wasted.) Adopting different voices, including his high Slim Shady sneer and a few variations on Jamaican patois, Eminem populates his own universe. What happens there rarely involves other people, unless they are victims of his penis and his knife.

Nobody is safe

"Relapse" just might contain Eminem's most offensive bunch of rhymes yet, and the violence goes in all directions. Like the horror-film directors he admires, who keep cashing in on their weird obsessions with sequel after sequel, he revisits old stamping grounds, digging deeper in to perfect his carving techniques.

There are many, many pipe dreams about victimizing famous, mostly female sitting ducks, including Britney Spears, Sarah Palin and Mathers' alleged long-ago fling Mariah Carey, who's the target of the silly "Bagpipes from Baghdad." He turns child abuse into a comic strip on "My Mom," the one about those Valium pancakes, and "Insane," the totally surreal recovered memory of molestation. And he continues to identify with the bogeyman. "How many people you know that can name every serial killer who ever existed in a row, put them in chronological order, beginning with Jack the Ripper?" he crows in "Must Be the Ganja," showing off some distinctly antisocial expertise.

Still, serial killers? They've been done. Eminem's visions on "Relapse" repulse, but they no longer really shock. Nor do they always produce the laughs that once came as a natural startle-response to his dirty tricks.

Eminem's first few albums forced listeners to confront their own responses to them; those who were utterly disgusted might have felt morally superior, but those who were honest about succumbing to his sick humor, or even being sucked into his bizarre and spiteful fantasies, had to confront something frightening within themselves. By now, though, we've all taken that test and figured out our positions, and Eminem's fetishes have become both more generic and more off-puttingly personal. While "Relapse" deserves kudos for its formal beauty, the admirable turns of phrase and gymnastic musical moments, it won't shatter anyone's world.

If he had been more explicit in playing out the critique of therapeutic culture that's embedded in these songs, made it a little more prominent amid the misogynistic, homophobic ranting and the blood lust, Eminem could have pulled his music into a new category. What he presents is still powerful, but narrowly cast.

"Relapse" is the first album Eminem has made after returning from his own brink, and it's an impressively focused and clever work. But this music is not transcendent. It's still stuck in Marshall Mathers' muck, his fundamental mistrust of pleasure and love. Maybe he just needs a new therapist. Or a new mask.

--Ann Powers

Photo credit: Karin Catt