Today, the top grunge albums of the 90s are widely accepted: Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Superunknown, as well as Badmotorfinger. And if you’re going to include an Alice in Chains album, it would be Dirt (1992). With guitarist Jerry Cantrell and vocalist Layne Staley in their primes, they were one of the most dangerous bands in the world.
Following releasing the Jar of Flies EP in 1994, Staley entered rehab for his heroin addiction. In April of the next year, Staley and his band entered the studio to work on recording their third studio album. The first one, Facelift (1990), had a very moody sound about it. There was some very slowed-down, doom-metal influenced songs like Love Hate Love, Confusion, and Real Thing, with some songs that had sped-up tempo like I Know Somethin’ (About You) and We Die Young, and the record of course included the still-receiving-radio-airplay classic Man In The Box.
Their next album, the previously mentioned Dirt, had a darker, more depressing feel. It was, of course, more commercially successful. There were songs about drug addiction, failed relationships, war, depression, and death, among other things. This third album, referred to as the Tripod Album because of the three-legged dog on the cover, was much heavier than both Facelift and Dirt combined. And while Facelift and Dirt feature classics like Dirt, Rain When I Die, Man In The Box, Would?, and Rooster, the quality of their self-titled record far exceeds their first two efforts.
By far the heaviest of all the records they’ve made before or since, and the most repeatable, this album contains no vintage ‘classics’ other than Heaven Beside You or Again, but from track one to 12, is so steady that you can listen to it from front to back without skipping. As per usual, the album is dominated by meaningful lyrics, cool Cantrell solos, and dirty riffs that aren’t purely grunge, but also infused with alternative music and heavy metal.
Grind is obviously a song about the rumors surrounding the rumors of the band. At the time, the dark cloud hovering the group was Layne Staley’s addiction to heroin and the drama it brought all the members. Despite the band still being intact, the media did everything in its power to destroy the chemistry and legitimacy of the band, from making false Staley death reports, gossiping, and this song was Jerry’s way of telling the media that their efforts wouldn’t work.
While Grind was a song addressing those who took “advantage” of Staley’s addiction, Brush Away, the second track, speaks more directly to the problem - Staley’s addiction itself. The lyrics suggest themes of isolation and laziness. It becomes increasingly obvious that the chemistry in the band is wearing, but the music remains timeless.
If they wanted to rename the album after the third track (Sludge Factory), they could. The heaviness of this album could be represented that way. This track is seven minutes and twenty two seconds of heavy riffs, with lyrics painting the picture of Staley’s addiction. “Once again you see him in this, discolored skin gives you away.” Staley’s haunting voice makes the track all the more dark.
Heaven Beside You, considered the classic from this album, would have fit in better on the band’s 1992 EP, Sap. Played acoustically, it is an ideal representation of how well Alice in Chains mix vocals and tempos, as well as volume. The song mixes the underrated vocals of Cantrell, the haunting vocals of Staley, the heaviness of his riffs, and acoustic melodies that made Alice in Chains (arguably) the best grunge band. Heaven Beside You is a classic song about a relationship gone wrong with relateable, true lyrics from Cantrell about past dysfunctional times with loved ones.
The next track, Head Creeps is clearly filler, but still maintains the consistency of the record. The lyrical themes are the same as in Grind, mostly reflecting the band’s disappointment with the media and gossip that have perhaps torn the band (and many bands before them) apart. This record is clearly a rebellion against those who care more about a band’s personal matters than the important part - the music and its impact.
Again, another Alice classic, is just as heavy as Sludge Factory, and with repetitive lyrics, tells a message that clearly Staley wanted to resonate with the listener. The lyrics are mostly relating to dysfunctional relationships: “Hey, let them do it again. You said you were my friend... turn me upside down, yeah.” Featuring the usual heavy riffs Cantrell usually molds into classic Alice in Chains songs, the chorus and repetition carry Again.
Following Again, perhaps the best cut on the album, there’s the 5 1/2 minute track, Shame In You. This song contrasts in sound, but features the typical rhythmic changes of any AIC song and the haunting vocals Staley often brings. It has been speculated that this track is written as a letter from Staley to his ex-fiancee, Demri Lara Parrott, also due to drug use.
Since this album features love songs, acoustic ballads, sludge anthems, and heavy riffs, it seems only natural that they would eventually challenge the power of God. In the eighth track, God Am, Staley questions the good-will of God while questioning the legitimacy of Christianity. Layne seems to be remaining loyal to God, however, so it almost seems like a frustrated prayer.
On the next track, So Close, almost seems like a song that resulted from the band going through a writer’s block. The title would reflect that they’re so close to coming up with an idea for a song. It also seems that Layne wrote this song to express his boredom with rock and roll stardom and the band as a whole. The song sounds like a song that could be on Facelift tempo-wise, as it’s a little faster than most songs on this record.
After a song that could be about boredom, it’s only fitting that the next song is called The Nothing Song. It starts quite blandly, and Layne tells a story about, well, nothing. The lyrics are a circle of stalling and the band struggling to come up with lyrics. He was trying to piece together the words that they can’t ignore, as he alluded to in Facelift track “It Ain’t Like That”. Like Head Creeps, it’s more filler than anything.
The next song, Frogs, is the best song on the album. It’s also the best song on Alice in Chains version of Unplugged. Lyrically, it’s got the most meaning, as Layne vents about friends who have betrayed him and being alone and confused. The heaviness and softness of the song at the same time mixed with the raw emotion of the vocals make this song a classic 90s song. Also, the message behind it make it unmistakably great.
The album’s final track, Over Now, is one of the few songs in which Layne didn’t write the lyrics. Running at seven minutes, it’s very similar to Heaven Beside You in that Jerry is writing a song about his past relationships. Some fans perceive it as a goodbye letter from the band to their fans. After all, this is the last song Layne appeared on as a member of Alice in Chains in the studio. It’s a very fitting end to a very solid record.
Overall, the heaviness of this album make it the best AIC record you’ll find with Layne behind the microphone. However, AIC does a remarkable job mixing up heavy stuff with light stuff and mixing in harmonized vocals. In my opinion, they’re the best grunge band and this record stands up to Nevermind, Ten, In Utero, Superunknown, and even Dirt.