Review Summary: In a Nutshell: A haunting, beautiful, tragic, and effortlessly superb piece of art.
One of the underrated qualities that separate great artists from merely good artists is the ability to evolve and reinvent themselves; the ability to stay away from formula and the temptation of sticking with safe and previously-tread ground. They always run the dual risks of alienating their existing fanbase, which might be more than a little resistant to change, and gaining the “sellout”/”trend-whore” label. However, while there is some merit to artists who doggedly and perhaps heroically refuse to compromise on their single-minded devotion to a particular artistic aesthetic no matter the irrelevance of said aesthetic *cough* AC/DC *cough*, there is undoubtedly more to be gained from art, both for the artist as well as the fan, from growth and expansion. Arriving on the heels of the classic full-length Dirt, the Jar of Flies EP cements Alice in Chains’ status as great artists. The band’s growth from album to album is palpable and rather than rest on their laurels after creating Dirt, the band continues to hone and improve on its craft. It is also a testament to the band’s greatness that despite Jar of Flies’ brevity, and the fact that the EP was written and recorded in just one week, the material on this album, is on par with pretty much any other grunge album you may care to name and exceeds most.
'Jar of Flies' picks up right where 'Dirt' left off, musically speaking, with the ominous bass riff, wah-wah’d guitar, and harmonised vocals of “Rotten Apple” continuing into the gentle strum of “Nutshell”. However, the band stays in a groove more than it has in the past, preserving the mellow vibe and gently inserting the vocal melody rather than building to the sort of big, anthemic chorus which is its normal stock in trade. This melodic slack, as it were, is picked up by guitarist Jerry Cantrell who plays some truly gorgeous guitar licks. The ultimate culmination of this melodic sensibility is the haunting instrumental “Whale and Wasp” where Cantrell manages to evince a great deal of emotion, primarily loss and longing, with a simple feedback and reverb-drenched guitar hook over an equally simple and unassuming acoustic guitar figure.
However, the band doesn’t completely forego huge vocal lines completely on 'Jar of Flies' as shown on perhaps the two best songs here, “I Stay Away” and “No Excuses”. The former’s epic scope combines upbeat-sounding verses with vocalist Layne Staley’s dissonant, dirge-like, minor key choruses in an inversion of the band’s usual ‘formula’ before Cantrell builds the song to a soaring coda accompanied by suitably epic guitar solo and string section. While reminiscent in structure of 'Dirt's “Would”, “I Stay Away” best showcases Cantrell’s grasp of composition while combining it with Staley’s off-kilter sense of melody. In contrast, “No Excuses” is blissfully simple and is perhaps the most straightforward song on the album, but the combination of the airtight vocal harmonies, fantastic interplay between drums and bass, and immediately memorable guitar hooks makes the song a highlight.
The last two songs on the album simultaneously display the band’s playful (pun not intended) nature, as well as formidable instrumental chops, with the band interpreting country-blues, on “Don’t Follow”, and jazz, on “Swing on This”, in its own trademark style. While the former song’s stripped-down guitar-harmonica combination and the latter’s literal attempt at swing may have been embarrassing missteps for most bands, to the band’s credit it actually manages to pull it off and the songs make for quirky gems rather than throwaway jokes.
Despite the fact that Cantrell has, by this point, established himself as the brains behind the Alice in Chains operation, and the unique and brilliant contributions in the vocal department by Staley, some mention must be made of the terrific work done by AiC’s rhythm section, comprising of bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney. The pair lay down formidable grooves on virtually every song, providing much of the impetus to Cantrell’s compositions. More so than previous albums, and definitely more so than the similar 'Sap' EP, the rhythm section gets some of the spotlight and keeps the music interesting without ever diverting attention from the melody. This is particularly evident in Kinney’s varied and tasteful drumming and Inez’s rolling bass-lines on “No Excuses” and “Swing on This”.
Lyrically too the band builds on Dirt with most of the songs dealing with depression and drug addiction, albeit covertly rather than overtly. While, thematically speaking, 'Dirt' dealt with the spiral into self-destruction, 'Jar of Flies' tempers this dismal outlook with resolve, acceptance and a return to innocence. One gets the sense that Staley and Cantrell are willing Staley to fight his demons and overcome them. Sadly this would not happen and Staley’s continued descent into debilitating drug-addiction would result in the band recording of the sub-par self-titled album, then going on hiatus and ultimately Staley’s own death ten years down the line. This cautionary tale of the fall from grace of one of the most compelling hard rock singers on the planet is more likely to be the subject of an after-school special than a biopic thanks to its unremitting gloom and tragic conclusion. Long story short: Drugs are bad, mmmkay?
However, the very same demons that eventually killed Staley also fuelled his and the band’s art. The darkness conveyed in the lyrics coupled with the haunting beauty of the music on 'Jar of Flies' makes for a compellingly poignant piece of art. 'Jar of Flies' may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as is true of every great work of art, it does not have to be.