It’s always tough for a veteran artist to make a comeback. In Eminem’s case with his ninth studio album Revival, he stuck to his guns and didn’t try to change much of the style we’re very familiar with. If there’s one word to describe Revival, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone, it’s volatile. Topics of shattered romance, self-hatred, hypersexuality, politics and overall regret permeate this album.
Not super atypical for Eminem, but while we are used to his aggression and outspokenness, what makes Revival particularly interesting is the surprising amount of piano and string instruments throughout. While simultaneously bass heavy, these touches enforce delicacy against harsh lyrics. This is a bit out of character for Em, yet oddly refreshing, likely encouraged by longtime producer Rick Rubin who worked with dynamic duo Eminem and Dr. Dre to get Revival off the ground. Em’s musical partner Skylar Grey and D12 member Denaun Porter also contributed to the production. Together they all stirred up a respectable pot of Slim stew.
Overall, the album is fairly easy listening, especially songs like “Walk on Water” (the current single featuring Queen Bey) and “Like Home” (featuring Alicia Keys). “Like Home” is political yet diluted by piano, which helps it outshine the supercharged song “Untouchable.” Those two aforementioned names should make clear that there are some astounding guest artists on Revival, like platinum-selling pop sensation Ed Sheeran. Throughout his career, Sheeran has openly admitted Eminem’s influence on his work and returns the favor with some simply beautiful contributions to “River.” It’s a song of soul searching that slightly resembles “Love the Way You Lie” from Em’s 2010 album Recovery. In some ways, Revival almost feels like Recovery 2.0. While not focused entirely on sobriety, Revival is equally emotional and reflective, with touches of darkness stemming from Em’s continued feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.
That’s most evident on a track like “Bad Husband.” If you’ve followed Eminem’s personal life over the years, the title alone should clue you into the subject matter at hand: messages of sorrow about his ex-wife Kim, complete with a sample of their daughter Hailie’s voice as an infant (scrapped from “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” a song from 2002’s The Eminem Show). It’s a tearjerker.
Revival ultimately struggles due to this push-pull between Em and co.’s desire to put his gruff demeanor up against softer sounds and well-worn fallback positions. “Nowhere Fast” pits Em’s vocals against the beautiful voice of Kehlani and some lovely string work. The combination sounds like Eminem circa 2010 and not the angry 45-year-old man of today. On the flipside, “Remind Me” circles around a sample of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” changing the chorus to “I love you, ‘cause you remind me of me.” Somehow any time Em and his producers sample a song with heavy guitar—like “So Far” from Marshall Mathers LP 2 with its rip of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good”—it just doesn’t work out. They feel like filler tracks to give the artist a small breather between his more daring leaps.
What critics and fans will likely home in on are the lyrics for “Castle,” where Eminem claims “I’ll put out this last album/then I’m done with it/100% finished/fed up with it/I’m hanging it up.” Is he really? Probably not considering all the hype and hoopla surrounding Revival’s release. But with the amount of time it took him to get this album out into the world, there could be more truth to that than we realize. Time will tell.