I take cold comfort in the fact that in an uncertain world, we can count on a long-absent Eminem to still be one disturbed motherfucker.

"Relapse," Eminem's first studio album in five years, opens with a skit where Eminem is getting ready to leave rehab, but the dream morphs into a nightmare as he faces temptation even before walking out the door."Relapse" closes with Eminem at an AA meeting led by the same doctor from the opening sketch, gorked out of his mind. The last word? "Shit."

Inbetween are 18 tracks which give us the full range of Marshall Mathers' many personalities, including the best known-Eminem and Slim Shady. No matter who he is, though, there's no escape from the darkness.

On "3 a.m.," Eminem is a drugged-up, serial killer who forgets he's murdering people until he sees their bodies and wonders how they got there. He references "Silence of the Lambs," but mainly cogitates on how "your blood curdling screams seem to bother me none." (In fact, he seems fixated on the killer from "Lambs," or at least his method of skinning his victims).
Eminem's mom, certainly no one's candidate for mother of the year, shows up three songs in on "My Mom," and there's still clearly no love lost there. In a singy-songy, drugged out voice, he sings about how his mom was always hopped up on drugs, so he learned from the best. It would be catchy if it weren't so tragic.

Things go from bad to worse, on "Insane," when his step-father molests him and sets in motion a chain of horrible events.

And so it goes with "Relapse." Produced by long-time Enimem cohort Dr. Dre, "Relapse" is a long, slow descent into the hell that is Mathers' mind. He may be sober, but there's no joy or happiness in his sobriety, there are just the same old demons haunting him, only his familiar escape route has been shut down.

When he's not raping lesbians or homosexuals (who still seem to bother Eminem an inordinate amount, Elton John aside), he's murdering, drugging, digging a fetus out and just generally wreaking havoc. In other words, for longtime Eminem fans, the same old, same old, but he seems to have taken it a step further here.

No one is spared his wrath: Mariah Carey, whom he may or may not have slept with depending upon whom you believe, is the target of his vitriol on "Bagpipes from Baghdad." (He also attacks her husband, Nick Cannon).As he always has, he routinely drops names such as Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Pussycat Dolls, Madonna, Jessica Simpson, Ted Bundy, Mozart and even Christopher Reeve, who gets no fewer than three mentions (in a very weird segment in "Medicine Ball," he imitates Reeve telling him he'll never measure up to Superman.)

There are interesting rhythms and beats winding through various tunes, most notably "Bagpipes from Baghdad," with its Middle Eastern, insinuating hypnotic line, or the undulating "Hello," but it's not enough to lift the project. Over the course of his career, Eminem has shown flashes of brilliance and immense talent in both clever songwriting and impressive delivery. It's hard to find that here.

At its best, "Relapse" is a somewhat tedious exercise that is interspersed by catchy beats and occasionally witty rhymes, but the majority of the time it is exhausting, if not nauseating, to listen to. By track 12, "Stay Wide Awake," when he sings that he'll "fuck you with an umbrella and open it up while that shit's inside you," is there anything left to say?

Well, yes there is, as it turns out. And it's when he focuses the narrative on himself that things get interesting. Three tracks later, another skit has Eminem overdosing. He's rescued by paramedics, unconscious and near death. That gives way to "Déjà Vu," the most affecting song on "Relapse" only because it rings so raw and true that you don't know whether to slap some sense into Eminem or hug him. Despite his daughter, whom he clearly loves, he can't stop harming himself over and over again. It's an excoriating look at his past four years, filled with relapse and overdose and, more than anything, unending, crippling, suffocating self-loathing.

"Déjà vu" is followed by perhaps the strangest song he's ever recorded. "Beautiful" starts as a self-pitying story of how hard it is to be Eminem, especially as he comes to grips "that I may be done with rap." As he invites us to "walk a mile in [his] shoes," Eminem, in all sincerity, reminds up not to let someone tell us we're not beautiful and to be proud of who we are. WTF? Where the hell did the "Oprah" moment come from? Unless I'm hearing it wrong (and I could be), he is completely irony free.

In addition to the self-hatred that Eminem wears like a badge of honor throughout "Relapse," he manifests his insecurity about his place in the market through two skits, "Paul" (probably a reference to his manager, Paul Rosenberg) and "Steve Berman" (the name of a top Interscope executive). In both, they give voice to what he fears people will say about this project, such as what is he doing taking on someone like Reeve and what took so long to make this album (we have to admit, the part where Eminem asks Berman if he's wearing a bullet-proof vest is humorous).

There's no redemption to be found here, just stone-cold horror. And it's not even done in way that provides the gratification of a good revenge fantasy. There's just torture-self inflicted and otherwise. This may have been cathartic for Mathers to let us see what goes on in his head (remember, even when he's taking on other personas, his mind still had to think this shit up), but for the rest of us, it sounds like just one long extended cry for help.

"Relapse" is on sale this Tuesday.