Episode III: Dirt
After releasing demo songs for was what going to be their second full-length on the EP Sap
, Alice in Chains went on to record their actual second studio record. The period in which this happened became an opportunity for the band to do some soul-searching, and led to songs with emotionally heavy subjects, many among them dealing with addiction, an issue the band, and especially Staley struggled with, until his death. The new album was released in 1992 and entitled Dirt
. It was received superbly, lauded by music critics, and still is Alice’s most popular record.
Dirt’s Alice in Chains was:
- Layne Thomas Staley (R.I.P.) ~ Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
- Jerry Fulton Cantrell ~ Lead Guitar, Vocals
- Michael Christopher Starr ~ Bass Guitar
- Sean Howard Kinney ~ Drums
- Tom Araya (Slayer) ~ Vocals on Iron Gland
wasn’t the easiest of records to make. Each four of the band members was going through heavy personal issues at the time, and it shows. Staley recently got out of rehab, but fell back into old habits quickly, Starr and Kinney were drinking all the time, and Cantrell had to deal with the deaths of two people close to him: his mother, and his close friend Andrew Wood, front figure of the short-lasting Mother Love Bone
. Especially Staley and Cantrell, whose personal tragedies were the most harrowing, contributed hugely to the record, and unintentionally created an album chock-full of depression, addiction, loss, and other subjects in that vein.
But that is exactly why Dirt
was so successful.
Just take a glance at the cover art. Not a pretty picture, is it? It represents the idea of the album perfectly, however. Dirt
is about feeling low, depressed and sad, or as the title suggest, like dirt. The main subject focus here is Staley’s drug trouble, which literally half of the album is dedicated to. He wrote what was going through him at the time, and as such it is no surprise that all the songs (co-)written by him have the very same subject. Logically, these songs are also the most unpleasant to listen to, as they sound so downright mean and heavy that you cannot actually enjoy
them at all times. Sickman
, God Smack
and Hate to Feel
are all driven by the haunting wail that Staley still has copyright on after all these years after his death, but there is of course a counter side to this. As well as its songs suit Dirt
(which is just about perfectly), the vocals, but also the drowning distortion that the guitars produce do not contribute to a very pleasant listening experience. Facelift
was already dark, but Dirt
is much, much darker, and as such not suited for all moods. The funny thing about the album is simply that if you experience it in the right way, it is a masterpiece, but if you’re not in the right state of mind, it will be very, very unappealing and unpleasant indeed.
Staley does get it right on the interestingly sinister Angry Chair
though, but the man behind the real quality material remains no one else than Cantrell, who always has been driving the band. Death in his near surroundings led him to ponder about mortality, leading to the immensely powerful Them Bones
and Rain When I Die
, although written by him, neither would have been half as good without Staley’s vocals. Cantrell further expresses his experience of depression (Down in a Hole
), and describes the horrors his father experienced while serving in the Vietnam War (Rooster
). The rest of his material is however topped by Dirt’s closer Would?
, which still stands today as one of Alice in Chains’ very best songs. The killer bass line, the figurative lyrics, the almost dreamy vocals, everything just fits in order to create the perfect closer.
In terms of influence, impact and thematic realization, Dirt
is therefore of course no less than a classic. The cover art, instruments and vocals come together in one drug-heavy ride that offers some of Alice in Chains’ very best material, but where the overall theme is so well-realized, it is some of the individual tracks where the album falters. You’ll also need to be in a particular mood for it, but the album ultimately pays off. How much it does, is really depending on what state you are currently in. Some may think it a horrible affair, some may find it an undeniable classic, or anything in between. My experience with Dirt
changes often, and although I have a hard time deciding whether this piece is worth a superb or classic rating, I have drawn an eventual conclusion: You cannot put a mark on this album. It is sick, harrowing, dark, and even beautiful music in places, but a number could not describe its quality. Dirt
is more than an album. Dirt
is an experience. Mostly, this is an excellent experience for me, for the most part, and that’s why I shall rate it that way. Everyone else has just got to see what they make of it. Because that is what you must ask yourself: what do YOU think of Dirt
Down in a Hole
Rain When I Die
To be continued...