Review Summary: A rare glimpse into the light for Layne Staley
Artists who are fueled by their vices are always a curious case to analyze. No one wants to see the artist get dragged down and destroyed by their problems, but at the same time the drugs (or whatever else is weighing down the artist) are a part of what is causing the artist to reach such levels of greatness. Now, back in the early nineties, Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley were both heavily addicted to drugs, and as a result of their pain and sorrow, wrote arguably the greatest album about such troubles Dirt
. It was twelve songs that expressed the hopelessness that came with their maladies. The overwhelming feeling one gets when listening to Dirt
is such that there was no way out, no hope, no light. Not only were the lyrics depressing but Cantrell made every guitar line harsh and painful, creating an all-enveloping sense of loss and self-loathing. Jar of Flies
, a mostly acoustic EP recorded over a week and released a year and a half after Dirt
, continues mostly in the lyrical path laid out by its predecessor, but offers glimmers of hope through the despair.
The first two tracks on the EP, “Rotten Apple” and “Nutshell”, are easily the two most depressing of the album, with lyrics such as “We face the path of time, and yet I fight this battle all alone, no one to cry to, no place to call home”
, found on “Nutshell.” Layne Staley is at his most haunting on these tracks, his vocals conveying the agony he feels. “Nutshell” is truly a masterpiece as well, powered by pensive acoustic guitar, with mournful electric guitar cutting through at times to add on to the power of the song. On a certain level, no song more perfectly describes Layne Staley’s legacy than “Nutshell”, the pervading darkness surrounding Staley’s vocals as he slowly accepts the situation he created while searching helplessly for a way out.
“Nutshell” is followed up by “I Stay Away”, which is Layne slowly crawling out of his lowest point. The guitar work is more optimistic in tone, with strings in the background helping to lift the song into more peaceful territory. The lyrics delve into more uplifting territory as well, describing a negative influence and using that influence as fire to pull himself out of the darkness. It all culminates with Staley’s powerful wail of the title, reaffirming his conviction. Every song on Jar of Flies
is filled with compassion, with “No Excuses” and “Don’t Follow” raising the second half to almost equal footing with the first half, succeeding in wrenching every bit of emotion from relatively simple guitar and Staley’s best vocal work of his career. The only (minor) slip is with the closer “Sing On This”, a seeming attempt at more of a bluesy sound, which while still a good song, doesn’t fit very well with the rest of the EP, ultimately making it end on a low note.
Jar of Flies
is an emotional, heart-wrenching experience, one that is truly cathartic by its finish. Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are at their absolute best, letting you into the myriad of emotions and feelings they were going through at the height of their fame and addiction. They were able to tap into their most tortured thoughts and still come out with reassurance that one day those demons would be beaten for good. Unfortunately, most know about Layne Staley’s unfortunate death in 2002, his demons finally getting to the best of him, which makes Jar of Flies
much more fascinating and sad in retrospect. Maybe if he had better support, or one less bad day, he could have taken the convictions displayed on record and used them to conquer his vices. Sadly, we will never know.