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.