Revival is a very intriguing record. However, there’s no doubt that the myriad of mixed reactions that Eminem’s latest album has received signals that there are problems with it, and the consensus would be correct in assuming that.
However, Revival’s case is unique in that it suffers from what I call the ‘Midnight syndrome,’ where each half of the album is practically night and day in quality. As a result, the album’s first half is littered with poor quality, whereas the second half is decorated with some moments of pure brilliance.
I won’t go into this review without noting first that there are two exceptions to this. First, the album’s opening track, the surprisingly downbeat and intimate “Walk on Water,” is a well-mixed mesh of expression and distress that sees Marshall Mathers vent his frustrations about the process of songwriting. It serves as a grand opening to an album consisting of many vents, contextualizing what seems to be the ultimate purpose of this album and many other previous albums put out in his career – a source of emotional release put on a public pedestal for all to witness.
“Untouchable,” the album’s fourth track, similarly achieves success in this manner, being a vehicle for Marshall to vent his frustrations with the treatment of African Americans in the United States society, especially by certain police officers and law enforcement. Cruel irony plays a dramatic role in the track, which begins from the viewpoint of a bigoted police officer, set to an emphatic rock beat that pushes the song’s very button-pressing hook, “Nobody can tell me shit ’cause I’m a big Rockstar!”
All the other tracks in Revival’s opening 43 minutes are a very long drag. Moreover, the album’s production is laden with inconsistencies that practically ruin the illusion of atmosphere that high-budget albums are generally competent at holding down well.
This is exemplified even in tracks such as “Untouchable,” where the rock beat seems rather low-fidelity and mixed a bit too low to be truly satisfying to the ear. Ear-piercing electronic hi-hats that have polluted the music charts make many appearances throughout the first half of Revival; “Believe” is the biggest sinner in this regard. As a result, this part of the album is challenging to listen to at an exceptionally high volume.
A common criticism towards Revival has been the choice of music and genres on this rather sonically diverse record, though this isn’t a particularly fair criticism. For example, Marshall’s adventure in the soundscapes of trap music in “Chloraseptic” isn’t inherently bad simply because the genre is too ‘generic’ for an artist like Eminem, as his fan base often press in critical comments aimed at the track.
Instead, the problem is how he chooses to perform along with such a wicked, bass-heavy beat – the same generic ego-laden lyricisms that have plagued the genre’s rise to mainstream popularity over the past three years. Marshall’s lyrics are certainly more creative and entertaining though, with the track’s hook being a reference to the brand of throat pain medication that both Eminem and featured vocalist PHresher claim that their detractors will need after they’ve been “at their throats.”
Lyrics can be a source of frustration through the majority of the first half of Revival, however. The sensitive “River,” which features a lofty passage from Ed Sheeran, alternates too much between formal and informal speech, muddying the song’s story of a love triangle that results in an abortion. Marshall also makes another apology track on Revival, this time towards his former wife Kim Mathers on “Bad Husband.” With the new cliché he has conceived, it is impossible not to compare the track with “Headlights” from The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
This incredible track embraces the raw emotional weight of Marshall’s relationship with his mother. Here, on “Bad Husband,” two significant problems drag the track down from being an effective emotional experience. The first is the relatively straightforward lyrics that seem rushed and lacking vision.
There isn’t a coherent narrative or strong metaphorical verses that properly carry Marshall’s emotions to the track’s audience. The second is the choice of beat, a rickety drum beat populated with an enormous hi-hat population that distracts the audience from the lyrics themselves.
For comparison, the strength of “Headlights” comes from its incredible bass-boosted piano chords that properly elevate the emotional nature of the story Marshall is trying to tell.
With the many problems of the album’s first half, both musical and lyrical, one could imagine that the second half has a lot to make up for, but it satisfyingly does! The entire stretch between “Framed” and the final track “Arose,” while not perfect, is a pretty incredible 34 minutes for Eminem, especially compared to the tracks that proceeded it.
“Framed” returns to the creepy yet fun horrorcore beat and goofy lyrics that Eminem is best known for, and he pulls off the old style just as well. But, of course, the track isn’t complete without its incredibly meme-able hook, which solidifies the hilarious ironic serial killer character the track portrays. The beautiful intertwining of comedy and clever lyrics continues in “Heat,” which ultimately trumps the rather flat sexual innuendos of the album’s first half, especially in “Chloraseptic.”
Speaking of ‘trumping,’ another thing that the closing half of the album does so much better than its opening is the obsessive expression of outrage towards the current Trump administration. Eminem attempted a more serious take on his frustrations towards Trump and other Republican Party politicians in the album’s ninth track, “Like Home,” which played out as an extending-of-the-hand to like-minded people.
It is quite the disappointing deflation of the issue though, as the track doesn’t seem to serve much purpose other than being a straight-up political anthem that chicken slaps the government sloppily with criticism without saying anything that hasn’t been said already by other artists in the music industry in the past three years of Trump’s political dominance.
In the album’s fifteenth track, “Offended”, the seriousness is swapped out for a more loose and comedic tone, and this seems so much more effective at entertaining the audience while improving the chicken slapping with a sterner grip and application of harder force, through the use of some savage jokes and more colorful criticisms aimed at Trump, his administration, and Mitch McConnell too. It also works better as the track itself is not Trump-centric but forms part of the greater idea of Eminem as an output of controversy, which he lampoons gleefully throughout the track.
The use of samples is also another thing that the album’s second half executes better than the first. “Remind Me” uses an incredibly choppy and poorly edited sample of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” to emphasize the track’s theme of self-reflection-based relationships, even if the track it sampled for the hook doesn’t share those themes at all.
“In Your Head”, the starring highlight for most Eminem fans on Revival, samples the legendary “Zombie” by The Cranberries and is more successful at its intentions.
The original song, written as a sorrowful and rage-induced reaction to the escalation of The Troubles in Ireland, carries the emotional weight and transfers it astonishingly well to a track about Marshall’s inner emotional struggle, paralleling his life with the fight of innocents against the violence of The Troubles.
It is probably the most profound description of his life that Marshall Mathers has ever put to paper, and it’s a very valuable insight into his inner workings.
Revival’s beautiful two-part finale, “Castle” and “Arose,” continues this valuable insight through to the very end, combining a very downbeat and somber atmosphere with a coarse venting of negative emotions towards past events in his life, centering mainly on his drug overdose and near-death experience in 2007.
A powerful recognition of the effect this had on the direction of his career. It is a tearful finale that mostly takes place in the context of letters being written by Marshall to his daughter Hailie Mathers, and later from his presumptive death bed after his overdose, with the latter accompanied by an impactful bass drum beat that emphasizes the urgency of what Marshall envisioned would’ve been his last words.
While the album made many mistakes in its first half, Revival makes a lasting impression on the audience with this soaring high note that it ends on. This is not to say that the album is wholly redeemed; however, simply that it succeeded in closing out with a spectacular finale.
Revival is a reasonable effort by Eminem to put out an album that will fit well as part of his legacy. But, unfortunately, it isn’t a particularly great album, with many errors and oversights made in production, music, lyrics, and the like, especially during its first half.
It feels equally balanced, though, with incredible moments that get all the elements right, even at the expense of outshining a majority of the rest of the album. Ironically, it is a necessity, since most of the album deserves to have something to stand next to for a distraction.
Fans will most remember Revival for these particular moments of brilliance. Still, it won’t outweigh or overshadow the moments of mediocrity that have clumped together in the album’s first few tracks. Ultimately, its title is a bit funny, as from what it seems, the album arrived at the hospital dead on arrival but was miraculously revived, albeit with the disease that initially killed it still swimming around in the veins.
Image credits – Artwork for ‘Revival’ and promotional photograph all rights reserved by Eminem, Aftermath Entertainment, Shady Records, and Interscope Records.