For 10 years now, Eminem has been pop music's irascible answer to the Joker, juggling moments of genuine menace (2000's brutal murder fantasy ''Kim'') with cartoonish capers (his brash 1999 debut smash ''My Name Is'') and occasional flashes of unlikely gravitas (the Oscar-winning one-man creation myth ''Lose Yourself'').
On Relapse's jaunty first single, ''We Made You,'' the 36-year-old rapper plays the role in Jack Nicholson's broad-strokes style a court jester clowning his way through cheeky provocations and two-dimensional disses. But the real Marshall Mathers seems to hew much closer to the version that Heath Ledger gave us: a deeply damaged nihilist who uses humor to mask a seething hurt. Eminem's last album, 2004's Encore, felt like Mathers at half-mast; on the lacerating, compulsively listenable Relapse, it's clear he's passed through fire. Tracks like ''3AM'' and ''Medicine Ball'' are riddled with graphic allusions to prescription-drug addiction and a seemingly tenuous sobriety.
Thankfully, producer Dr. Dre is there to temper the lyrical bloodletting, laying heavyweight hooks over even the most scabrous tales of family disturbia (see the blistering ''My Mom'' and incest fever-dream ''Insane''), and setting ''Bagpipes From Baghdad,'' Em's inspired riff on rumored ex Mariah Carey, to snake-charming woodwind squiggles. Though a smattering of other celebrity goofs (Kim Kardashian, Sarah Palin) feel both dated and beneath him, Relapse's real resonance comes from the fragile, harrowing genius that lies behind that painted-on grin. A–
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