Browse any recent pop chart or box-office listing and you'll notice that comebacks are all the rage. But it's more than just a wave of nostalgia sweeping across the cultural landscape. From the latest Star Trek film to the new Green Day album, many recent retoolings succeed because they offer improvements on the original format. After a four-year absence, Eminem (aka Marshall Mathers) is the latest big name to stage a comeback. The rapper has overcome some high-profile personal problems too, including his second divorce from the same woman, an addiction to prescription drugs and a ballooning waistline. But the years spent fighting his demons shouldn't be too much of a handicap for the rapper. They might even come in as an advantage. After all, victory over one's dark side has been a tried and tested lyrical theme since the days of the blues.
Within the opening minutes of Relapse, Eminem's unmistakable sneer and lightning-fast rhymes are back. But unfortunately, the dark humour and infectious hooks that once made him the biggest rapper in the world are nowhere to be found. Relapse is not only the worst album in an otherwise impressive career, it may become a contender for worst album of the year. Clocking in at a painful total of 76 minutes, it is overlong and bloated. Songs such as 3am and My Mom see the rapper addressing his addictions and getting sober. But instead of treating the subject with the respect and intelligence that it deserves, he wears the experiences like medals of honour, or just resorts to blaming other people for his actions.
Eminem's songs have always been loaded with angst and self-pity, but that was kept in check with a large dose of wit and sharp delivery. Sure there was toilet humour. On 2000's The Real Slim Shady - a song which critiqued celebrity culture, he delivered the self-parodying line: "He didn't just say what I think he did, did he?" It was a way of answering his critics, who wrongly accused the rapper of simply blurting out the most offensive things he could think of. Almost a decade later and he seems to have forgotten the very point that he was trying to make and become the thing he was accused of being.
Despite the involvement of the legendary hip-hop producer Dr Dre, there just don't seem to be any catchy tunes. In fact, the production is murky, samey and lacks the scope that Dre brought to Eminem's first two major-label releases. Thankfully though, the cartoony pop sounds that beleaguered D12 and the rapper's latter efforts have also gone. In hindsight, the decision to release Eminem's greatest hits album Curtain Call in 2005 was a wise move - there certainly aren't any worthy contenders on Relapse.
Its big single We Made You desperately wants to recapture some of the celebrity-baiting zeal that My Name Is and The Real Slim Shady delivered so brilliantly, but instead sounds bitter and misogynistic. Then comes Bagpipes from Baghdad with a title that suggests the rapper might be revisiting some of the political ground previously broken with Mosh. Instead, the song offers nothing more than a Middle Eastern-style synth melody and nonsense raps delivered in a Scottish accent.
Before his disappearing act, Eminem appeared to be becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with. His performance in the 2002 film 8 Mile was astonishing and showed a sensitivity that few expected he possessed. In the years that followed he even became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, suggesting that, given time, he could develop a political voice. Now at 36, it would be a perfect time for Eminem to grow up and say something interesting. Instead, on We Made You he simply resorts to embarrassing lavatorial humour.
Perhaps Relapse's only saving grace is that Mathers' vocal ability has emerged unscathed. The lyrics may be dreadful, but the timing and complexity is still impressive. Perhaps some day he will put his voice to good use again. The only thing more dreadful than this seemingly never-ending series of misfires is the news that Relapse 2 is slated for release later this year. Apparently the rapper accrued so much material during his hiatus - and lost so much perspective - that the follow-up was ready to go before the first instalment hit the shelves. Let's just hope all the good songs ended up on that one.