Won't the real Slim Shady please lie down

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Eminem proved to be one of the more enjoyable guests on Jonathan Ross's Friday show (helped in part by a humourless Ben Stiller - seriously bro, it's five minutes on a sofa talking to a dafty in a shiny suit - choke it down). Everyone was eager to see what the post-rehab Eminem would be like. He'd certainly managed to to shed the fat suit he was recently sporting, and he was self-effacing and polite while answering some of Ross's more tired questions ("Did you encounter people saying, 'He can't do it because he's a white guy?'"). But the real test of the return was always going to be the new album, Relapse, which lands today on Interscope/Aftermath/Shady. Here's our verdict.

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There are no prizes for guessing the underlying theme of Eminem's first studio album in more than four years. The cover portrait is made up of hundreds of tablets, the title's written out like a pill bottle label and the tracklisting appears on the back of a chemist's paper bag. Eminem's been free of meds-addiction for over a year now, but he's clearly had a lot to work out in the tracks that make up this record, and possibly its follow-up, Relapse 2, due later this year. The opening "skit" - one of five - features Dominic "McNulty" West as a demonic doctor (though mercifully free of Baltimore accent) whose devil-may-care approach to sobriety leads Marshall to relapse from his first rehab stint (he did it in two). Then it all gets dark. Very dark.

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First track "3 a.m." is a nightmarish vision worthy of the Chapman brothers: discovering piles of dead bodies in McDonald's, dismembering close relatives and popping pills in front of Hannah Montana. Second track, "My Mom", with what sounds like an army of tubas in the background, describes being fed Valium as a kid. Next up is "Insane", a visceral account of sexual abuse by a stepfather (he rhymes "felching" with "belching", if that gives you some idea); for "Same Song & Dance" he adopts the persona and strangled voice of a psycho-killer with a penchant for lynching lady hitchhikers. Which all makes it something of a relief when "We Made You", with its "Hey Big Spender" big band chorus and pops at popular culture, finally arrives. Phew.

There are some flashes of brilliance here. Dr Dre's production ensures the hooks are heavy, the beats are pendulous and there's none of the cheesy Ministry mega-mix euphoria that's been creeping into hip-hop of late. "Bagpipes From Baghdad" is intriguingly weird: a nasal Arabian pipe melody, the odd Scottish accent, references to "brain-dead lesbian vegetables" and a strangely downbeat chorus. "Old Time's Sake" poses the question - perhaps a fear - that the drugs and the success might not be entirely separate concerns. "Send a little bit of that smoke my way," he asks, kind of joking, but it's perhaps telling that this is one of the few tracks that has that sense of mischief that has characterised so much of Eminem's work to date. "Beautiful" is a slightly pallid "stay to true to yourself" moment, before rounding up with the masterful "Crack A Bottle" and the apocalyptic "Underground" (the chorus of which, weirdly, has a touch of East 17 about it).

Relapse is certainly an interesting record. Eminem's rhymes remain the cleverest around and he's still brave enough to put anyone (including himself) up for ridicule. But it's also quite painful to listen to; gruelling, gross and, in parts, a slog - a bit like rehab must be for those unfortunate enough to have to go through it. It makes you thankful that it exists - signalling the return one of hip-hop's brightest talents - but eager to see what Shady does next.