Narcotic Conversion: A sober Eminem finds neither progress or perfection.

When you leave the game for five years, the expectation is that you’ve grown a bit in the interim. Although Eminem got clean during his hiatus from hip-hop, his latest album, Relapse, wallows in the period following 2004’s Encore, when he sank into a pharmaceutically enabled depression, during which he passed out and masturbated extensively while staying up to date with current events—he now cops erections from Hannah Montana instead of Christina Aguilera. Eminem’s still laughing at himself on Relapse, but—as anyone who hangs out with a newly sober friend will understand—he’s not nearly as funny as he used to be. Take the apparently earnest crooning over ’80s atmospherics on “Beautiful”: “I think I’m starting to lose my sense of humor,” Em sings, before admitting, “I just hide between the tears of a clown.” Fair enough; after Marshall Mathers’ mental breakdown following the 2006 death of his best friend, Proof, and for-real-this-time divorce from Kim Mathers, it only follows that the dark will dominate the humor. Here, Em’s Elvis complex takes on new meanings (“It’s 12 noon/Ain’t no harm in self-inducin’ a snooze/What else is new?/Fuck it, what would Elvis do in your shoes?” he drawls on “Déjà Vu”), and Dr. Dre is still promising to get Em high, but it’s all of a sudden sinister. Talk of popping Valium to ease real-life, grown-up problems isn’t as amusing as the violent fantasies he spun under the influence of ’shrooms and X—even if the meds inspire the best line of the record (“Swallowin’ the klonopin/While I’m noddin’ in and out on the ottoman,” he rhymes on “3 A.M.”). It was never a secret that Eminem’s irony served as much for self-preservation as for entertainment value, and while the emotional forthrightness is welcome as ever, it’s not getting us off in new ways. The traditional question—to what extent is he kidding?—arises more than ever on Relapse, but somehow, it seems less relevant this time around. Did his mother really feed him Xanax? Did his stepdad really sodomize him? Does anyone still care? Much has been made of the new delivery Eminem introduces on Relapse. It is crisper, curter, and laced with the occasional faux-Jamaican inflection, as exemplified on “My Mum,” which mocks T. Pain while recalling “My Band,” one of his last D12 singles. In this voice, Em spits with a vigor lacking on Encore, but his dismemberment narratives are mere set pieces, the boasts (“Guess it’s time for you to hate me again!”) both more self-serious and less worthy. As therapy, though, Relapse lives up to its name—at once a step forward and a step back.